The last in a pretty row of East Side brownstones

November 2, 2020

A single brownstone surrounded by tall modern towers is not an unusual sight in New York City. But something about 143 East 47th Street makes this house seem especially forlorn.

Of course it has a lonely air about it—it’s missing its neighbors.

This house was one in a row of single-family brownstones, built in the late 19th century as Turtle Bay became an attractive area for residences. It was also built amid the brownstone fever that had developers building row after row of these iconic New York City houses.

Here’s number 143 in 1940, courtesy of the New York City Department of Records and Information Services tax photo collection.

I’m not sure which house it is; probably the third from right. It’s been remodeled over the years—note the different front windows. But the cornice is the same, and the bones of this old house are still there behind the construction fencing, as it awaits its fate: new modern neighbors or perhaps the bulldozer.

A Midcentury artist’s muted Manhattan beauty

November 2, 2020

You’ve seen paintings of Washington Square, Greenwich Village markets, and the New York Harbor before. But through the eyes and brush of Bela de Tirefort, these and other city scenes take on a muted, Impressionist beauty.

“6th Avenue El,” 1940

I didn’t find much information about De Tirefort’s early years. Born in Austria in 1894, he made his way to New York City and became instrumental in organizing outdoor art fairs, included something called the Greenwich Village Art Fair (maybe the Washington Square Outdoor Art Fair, which got its start in 1931?).

“Bleecker Square,” 1961

He organized an art fair in Brooklyn outside Grand Army Plaza in 1932, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle seemed to get a kick out of. “Brooklyn is still the city of churches and homes—to artists,” the Eagle wrote. “Neurotic, erotic, exotic, and degenerative ‘art’ may go in Greenwich Village, but Brooklyn likes its art conservative.”

“Evening, Central Park” undated

De Tirefort comes off like a pragmatic artist in his reply to the Eagle: “We are not here to argue with the public. We are here to sell. We are guests. We do not want to offend.”

“Brooklyn Bridge,” undated

It’s not clear where de Tirefort himself lived, but Greenwich Village is a good guess. Many of his paintings focus on Washington Square Park, Bleecker Street’s Little Italy, and other Village icons. He also sold his painting directly from Washington Square, stated 1stdibs.com.

“Hansom Carriage Central Park” 1940

He tended to bathe his scenes in soft tones and thick brush strokes, presenting evocative city scenes that feel dreamlike but with decidedly Modernist touches.

“Park View, New York City” 1961

Through the 1940s and 1950s, de Tirefort exhibited his paintings in galleries and made a living as a working artist. In 1966, he moved to South Florida, where he died at age 99 in 1993, according to his obituary in the Tampa Bay Times.

“New York Harbor From the East River” 1951

“Using muted tones, strong silhouettes, and incisive textures, his paintings capture the structure of the city in the decades between the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the growth of the New York art scene,” wrote 1stdibs.com.

De Tirefort in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, 1932

De Tirefort’s work, often up for sale at auctions, commands the kind of prices you’d expect from a chronicler of Midcentury New York’s poetic moments and elusive beauty.

[Images 1-7, mutualart.com; eighth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1932]

The election posters and banners all over the city

November 2, 2020

The internet, TV, and social media sites are today’s dumping grounds for campaign ads. But in a pre-digital New York City without mass media, political staffers got their candidate’s name out by taking to the streets.

A billboard in 1950: Dewey won, Corsi lost.

That meant putting up billboards on buildings, stringing banners across streets, and plastering posters on vacant storefronts.

McKinley and Hobart won, but Hobert died in office.

The banners seem to have been particularly common sights at the turn of the last century. This one above, for William McKinley’s 1896 presidential run, spanned Maiden Lane.

Competing campaign posters on Avenue C

On Avenue C between Third and Fourth Streets in 1936, campaign posters for Franklin D. Roosevelt are advertised just doors away from posters making the case for a voting for the Communist Party candidate.

FDR and Lehman, both winners in 1936

Here’s another FDR poster from the 1936 election, with Herbert Lehman running for governor, on the side of a store selling coal and ice.

This banner lays out TR’s campaign promises.

Does anyone remember who Fairbanks was? Charles W. Fairbanks was a senator for Indiana, chosen to run with Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 and promise “sound money and continued national prosperity” to Americans, per this banner on Maiden Lane.

Candidates in 1952, mostly lost to history

These posters, from 1950, covers local politicians. One name I recognize: Louis DeSalvio, an assemblyman for 38 years representing the Lower East Side and one of the namesakes of DeSalvio Playground on Spring and Mulberry Street.

[Top image: MCNY x2010.11.8821; second image: New-York Historical Society; third image: Oldnycphotos.com; fourth image: MCNY 2003.25.51; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: MCNY x2010.11.8818]

Five ghosts who supposedly haunt the Dakota

October 26, 2020

New York City has no shortage of reportedly haunted houses—from the East Fourth Street home of 19th century merchant Seabury Tredwell and his large family to the Morris-Jumel mansion in Washington Heights, where a rich widow born in the 1770s lived out her days.

But when it comes to haunted houses that truly look spooky, the Dakota wins hands-down.

This landmark 1884 luxury apartment building on Central Park West and 72nd Street—with its steep roof, dormer windows, corner pavilions, and other architectural features that blend German Renaissance and Gothic Revival styles—is exactly the kind of place you would expect spirits to be hanging around.

One of these Dakota spirits is that of a strange little girl, reportedly first seen by workmen sometime in the 20th century.

“A beautiful blond child suddenly appeared in the corridor, wearing high white stockings, patent leather shoes with silver buckles, and a dress of yellow taffeta that seemed to come from another century,” wrote Stephen Birmingham in Life at the Dakota.

“She was bouncing a red ball. ‘It’s my birthday’ she said and, still bouncing her ball she disappeared down the corridor. The description of the little in the yellow dress matched no child then in the building, and she has never been identified.”

The little girl is still seen by residents today, “greeting them with a smile and a wave” from lower floor windows, reported a 2015 ABC News article.

Another ghost, “the man with the wig,” might have been that of the man who developed the Dakota, Edward Cabot Clark (above, left).

This apparition—with a short beard, large nose, and wire glasses, not unlike Clark’s—visited an electrician in the basement in the 1930s four times.

Each time, “the man glared fiercely at [the electrician] for several moments, then reached up, snatched off the wig he was wearing and shook it angrily in [the electrician’s] face,” wrote Birmingham, adding that Clark indeed wore a wig.

A ghost with a little boy’s face also apparently paid a visit to the building as well. It happened in the 1960s, when a “construction worker who was working near the apartments stated he saw a figure with the body of a man but the face of a young boy,” reported nyghosts.com.

This creepy specter didn’t say anything but made the workers feel “like they were being closely watched,” according to the site.

Finally, one Dakota ghost is also the building’s most famous former resident: John Lennon.

Some time before he was shot to death in the archway of the Dakota on December 8, 1980, Lennon himself reported seeing a woman he dubbed the “crying lady ghost,” which other residents supposedly spotted as well, according to the 2010 book, Ghosthunting in New York City.

After Lennon’s death, two people claimed to see his spirit at the entrance of the Dakota in 1983 “with an eerie glow about him,” stated Ghosthunting. One of the ghost spotters wanted to talk to John, but because of the way he looked at her she decided not to approach him, the book explained.

That wasn’t the only Lennon ghost experience. “Surely the most reliable and believable sighting of John Lennon’s ghost comes from his wife, Yoko,” Ghosthunting continued. “She saw him seated at his piano in their apartment. He looked at her and said, ‘Don’t be afraid, I am still with you.'”

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: NYPL; third image: Wikipedia; fourth image: MCNY 2013.3.1.401; sixth image: MCNY 2013.3.2.1759; seventh image: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images; eighth image: Office of Metropolitan History]

The seedier side of Broadway by a 1930s painter

October 19, 2020

Cigarette ads, a burlesque house, a struggling theater, a flea circus and freak show (likely Hubert’s Museum): If you visited 42nd Street on the west side of Broadway at Times Square in 1932, this is what you’d find.

“42nd Street West of Broadway” was painted that year by Edmund Yaghjian, an Armenian immigrant who depicted daytime scenes of the 1930s cityscape and nocturnes that showcased the Depression-era Art Deco feel of the New York at the time.

After studying and then teaching at the Art Students League, Yaghjian took a teaching job in 1942 that forced him to leave Gotham for South Carolina, according to The Johnson Collection in Spartanburg, SC.

His New York City, the city of almost 90 years ago, is on view online at Artnet.

A teacher aids flu victims in a 1918 hospital ward

October 19, 2020

Influenza arrived in New York in August 1918, reportedly brought to the East Coast by ocean liners (though how the flu got here is still up for debate).

After the first cases were diagnosed, New York City’s health commissioner told the public, “the city is in no danger of an epidemic,” wrote Edward Robb Ellis in The Epic of New York City.

“He was wrong,” stated Ellis. In the next few months, the highly virulent and contagious disease dubbed the Spanish flu infected thousands of New Yorkers.

Residents safeguarded their health by wearing masks, hospitals were inundated with the sick, and volunteers were desperately needed to replace ill doctors and nurses.

Answering this call in 1918 was a young woman named Marion Lynch. At 23 she began traveling from her home in Darien, Connecticut to Manhattan to volunteer at Roosevelt Hospital on 59th Street and Ninth Avenue (below, in 1925), which had an influenza ward.

We don’t know exactly what motivated Lynch to volunteer at the hospital, and many of the details of her experience are unknown as well. (Lynch died in 1989 after a long career as a teacher in Rye, New York.)

But toward the end of her life, she began to jot down memories. One focused on what she saw at Roosevelt Hospital; it’s a small glimpse that reveals how dire conditions were.

“There must have been at least 15 beds on each side of the ward and the same on the long porch (perhaps more),” wrote Lynch. “There was no room for the dead. Blanket rooms and all available spaces were used.”

“There was such a shortage of blankets that patients were covered with paper instead, and that there was a horrifying rattling of the paper as they breathed,” Lynch reportedly told a cousin years later.

Lynch’s story came to me through her great nephew, an Ephemeral reader who thought his aunt’s diary snippet echoed what hospital workers saw in ERs across the city last spring, when New York was the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

What hospital workers witnessed in chaotic ERs several months ago will probably haunt them forever. What will they recall and write down about the coronavirus epidemic in New York City decades later?

[First, fourth, and fifth images: National Archives and Records Administration via Influenza Archive; second image courtesy of Dana Lynch; third image: MCNY 93.1.3.589]

The story of the West Village’s St. John’s Colony

October 19, 2020

West Village blocks don’t get any lovelier than West 11th Street (below) and Perry Street (bottom photo), two slender old streets lined with mostly well-tended brownstones and brick houses—particularly the stretch west of Seventh Avenue South.

West11thstreet

As picturesque as they are, there’s a secret hiding between these parallel blocks: Go through the horse walk between them (which is private, so you need access from a resident), and you’ll come upon a backyard garden with winding paths, places to sit, and a romantic, artsy vibe.

West11thstreetgarden

What’s the backstory? The garden and the brownstones surrounding them were christened in the early 20th century by a real-estate savvy reverend as “St. John’s Colony.”

West11thstreetgardenchurch

In the early 1900s, the reverend, John Armstrong Wade, led the church that still occupies the corner of Waverly and West 11th Streets, St. John’s in the Village.

Established in 1853, St. John’s built a church with ionic columns (below, in 1970), and the congregation grew along with the neighborhood through the 19th century.

But neighborhoods change, and what were once more middle-class, single-family brownstones were chopped into apartments, which became rundown.

With Rev. Wade at the helm, St. John’s decided to buy up some of the neighboring houses on West 11th and Perry Streets (below, in 1930), with the idea of renovating them to attract more stable residents and keep the parish from having to relocate uptown, like so many downtown churches did at the time.

West11thstreet1930nypl2

“Believing property to be a sound investment, and hoping to keep stable the area adjoining the church property, the vestry began with the acquisition of 224 West 11th Street, to purchase what came to be St. John’s Colony,” states the website for St. John’s.

Soon, properties on Perry Street were also purchased by St. John’s, and the development of the backyard garden was underway.

“Thus, St. John’s Colony began,” states an unidentified article from 1927, reproduced on St. John’s website. “One by one the houses were acquired. One by one under Mr. Wade’s guidance they were changed from common, drab tenements into unusual apartments of distinction and charm.”

Wset11thstreetmarycantwellbook“Fences and rubbish were cleared away and the little back yards were thrown into one—a large, open space where sunshine and space could have sway. Paths were laid out, trees and shrubs planted, and today this garden of St. John’s is unique in the garden history of New York.”

In the 1950s, writer Mary Cantwell and her husband moved into 224 West 11th Street, which she recalls in her beautifully written 1995 memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young.

“Between West 11th and Perry Street, “and hidden from passersby, was perhaps the most secret of all the Village’s secret gardens,” wrote Cantwell. “It was very large, with two fountains, a small stone alter, private sitting areas at the rear of each basement apartment, a towering catalpa tree which in spring had a haunting, peppery scent, rose of Sharon bushes and spirea and a community of box turtles, invisible in winter and shy in summer.”

Wset11thstreetgardenfacingperry

“Once there had been peacocks, too, spreading their tails along the paved pathways,” wrote Cantwell.

In 1971, the original St. John’s church was destroyed in a fire. A new building replaced it in 1974 and still stands today (below). In the 1980s, St. John’s began selling off some of the houses of St. John’s Colony, according to a 1995 New York Times article.

Sthjohnschurch

By the mid-1990s, St. John’s wanted to “relinquish its rights and responsibilities” regarding the garden, the Times wrote, because it was costly to maintain.

Today, does St. John’s still have a stake in St. John’s Colony? I’m not sure, but the garden seems to open to the back of the church. Perhaps church leaders decided that the peace and beauty there was worth the price of upkeep.

Perrystreet

[Fourth photo: St John’s Church, 1970, MCNY 2013.3.2.1623; Fifth photo: NYPL 1930; Sixth image: “St. John’s Gardens-Greenwich Village,” 1945, by Josephine Barry/MCNY 75.43.89; seventh image: Publishers Weekly]

An old IRT subway sign still in view at City Hall

October 12, 2020

This site has crazy love for vintage signs. But what a treat to come across a faded and worn remnant of the old time New York City subway—like this Lexington Avenue IRT sign, spotted at the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station after a trip on the 6 train.

The IRT—or Interborough Rapid Transit Company—was the independently owned subway system that launched the first trains in 1904. August Belmont founded the IRT in 1902, though it was soon dubbed the “Interborough Rattled Transit” by riders frustrated by late and overcrowded trains.

Illustration by W.A. Rogers, via Wikipedia

The IRT company disbanded in 1940, and the city bought the line. For decades, New Yorkers would still refer to numbered trains as the IRT, but I doubt you’ll find any straphanger who still uses the old-school name.

Why Manhattan has two streets named Beekman

October 12, 2020

For such a small strip of land, Manhattan has a lot of duplicated street names. Think Jones Street and Great Jones Street, Washington Street and Washington Place, and Greenwich Street and Greenwich Avenue.

But there’s one shared street name that’s always been a curiosity: Beekman. Beekman Street lies south of City Hall near the South Street Seaport, while Beekman Place is a residential enclave between 49th and 51st Streets by the East River.

Beekman Street, south of City Hall Park

Both Beekmans are slender roads on the East Side, with Beekman Street running three blocks and Beekman Place two. Beekman Street has a rougher mix of 19th century walkups and 1970s-style buildings, while Beekman Place is a posh lane of charmingly restored townhouses and elegant apartment buildings.

Who were the Beekmans, and how did their family name end up in two places on the Manhattan street map?

Beekman Street is the older of the two, named after Wilhelmus Beeckman (right), “who came to New Netherlands with Peter Stuyvesant and became prominent,” states A Landmark History of New York. At some point after arriving in 1647, Beeckman anglicized his name to William Beekman and bought a vast farm, and then another, where Beekman Street sits today.

Beekman Street itself may have started out as a cow path on Beekman’s farm leading to today’s City Hall Park—a community pasture known as the Commons in the 17th century.

William Beekman was just 21 when he relocated to New Amsterdam. He became socially and politically popular, serving as sheriff, burgomaster, and then deputy mayor and acting mayor, both under British rule.

Beekman Place, Turtle Bay

He had many descendants who made their own name in the growing city. One, great-grandson James Beekman, is the namesake of Beekman Place.

Born in 1732, James Beekman (below right) was a wealthy merchant who built a mansion he called Mount Pleasant on an estate centered at today’s First Avenue and 51st Street.

James Beekman’s mansion served as a country respite for his wealthy family from the increasingly crowded city center.

But during the Revolutionary War, Mount Pleasant had some new residents: British generals, who made it their military headquarters. (Nathan Hale was also supposedly hanged here, but that’s a piece of history still in dispute.)

When the war ended, the Beekman family returned to Mount Pleasant; they stayed until 1834, driven away by a cholera epidemic, according to a 1977 New York Times article.

After the mansion was demolished two decades later, the Beekmans created a new street running through the former estate and sold lots to developers.

Brownstones replaces the mansion, but by the late 19th century, “the Beekman Place brownstones were abandoned to the poor, many of whom worked in the packing houses, slaughterhouses and coalyards along the East River,” states the Times.

Beekman Place’s restored townhouses

“The wealthy, drawn largely by the river setting, began to reclaim the neighborhood in the 1920’s.” This is the Beekman Place that remains with us today: quiet, hidden, and with some of the most expensive real estate in the city.

[Third image: Wikipedia; sixth image: MCNY 95.76.3; seventh image: Wikipedia]

The mysterious portrait artist of Spring Street

October 12, 2020

Very little is known about a 19th century New York painter named John Bradley.

He “may have” immigrated to America from Ireland in 1826, the Metropolitan Museum of Art noted. In the 1830s, he was in Staten Island, where he painted portraits of well-known Staten Islanders with last names like Totten, Cole, and Ellis.

In a New York City directory in 1836, however, John Bradley is listed as a portrait painter on Hammersly Street—today’s West Houston Street, according to the National Gallery of Art.

From 1837 to 1843, Bradley was listed at 128 Spring Street. “Bradley’s last address in New York, from 1844 to 1847, was 134 Spring Street,” states the National Gallery. After this, “nothing further has been determined of Bradley’s life or career.”

But Bradley did leave behind some of his portraits—and two, both of little girls, showcase his folk art style and rich attention to detail. They also give us an idea of what well-off little girls in New York wore in the 1840s, from their bonnets to jewelry to dresses down to their slippers.

“Little Girl in Lavender,” at top, was done in 1840. The second portrait, from 1844, is of two-year-old Emma Homan, whose father ran the first omnibuses in the city. Both works would have been painted while Bradley was on Spring Street—a desirable address in a fashionable area at the time.

John Bradley’s studio was at this corner in the 1840s.

Today at his former Spring Street addresses, no building survives that could have housed Bradley’s studio. Here’s the corner where it once was, at Greene Street, above. The mid-19th century Spring Street of small houses is long gone.

Emma Homan herself might be the last known connection to Bradley. After moving away from New York City with her family as a girl, she grew up to be botanical artist and writer, at right in an 1897 photo.

[First portrait, National Gallery of Art; second portrait: Metropolitan Museum of Art]