The story of the twin houses of Commerce Street

December 24, 2017

In the West Village, at that wonderful cow-path bend where Commerce Street winds around to merge into Barrow Street, sit two stately antebellum homes.

Numbers 39 and 41 Commerce Street, built in 1831 when the village of Greenwich was transitioning from a suburb to part of the larger city, are twin separate stand-alone houses, joined together by a small shared garden behind a concrete wall.

These two beauties remind me of sisters—and a legend about two sisters may be in their history.

The story has it that the houses were built by a sea captain who had two feuding daughters.

The daughters wouldn’t speak to each other, so he built identical houses for them with the shared garden, hoping they would get along again.

Who doesn’t want to believe a story like that? Unfortunately, no evidence supports it.

A New Jersey milkman named Jacob Huyler is credited with building the twin houses, which originally stood only two stories high.

“Huyler never lived in New York, but he did not sell the buildings—he held them for rental,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1996. One of those renters was listed at the time as a captain.

By the end of the 19th century, the mansard roofs and a third floor were added, and both homes were carved up into rooming houses for artists and working-class residents.

[Above right, in 1913; bottom two photos by Berenice Abbott; 1937.]

Today in a pricier Greenwich Village, the houses are single-family residences again. They retain their 19th century loveliness, and strollers often stop and stare.

These twin beauties are emblems of a much different New York, when a legend about a sea captain using real estate to help bring two sisters together doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to believe.

[Third photo: MCNY x2010.11.1797; fourth photo: MCNY 89.2.3.214; fifth photo: MCNY 43.131.1.327]

Where was the original WPIX yule log filmed?

December 24, 2017

WPIX Channel 11’s strangely mesmerizing Yule Log is a Christmas tradition for New Yorkers from the 1960s to the 1980s.

So it was quite a disappointment to discover that the yule log so many of us grew up on was actually shot in a fireplace in California.

The original 16mm footage, a 17-second loop first shown on Christmas in 1966, was actually and appropriately filmed in a fireplace at Gracie Mansion, where Mayor John Lindsay lived at the time.

But when Channel 11 wanted to upgrade the deteriorating film to 35mm in 1970, they got a definitive no from the Lindsay administration.

“Unfortunately, when WPIX shot the original Gracie Mansion footage, to capture the log in all its flaming glory, the crew decided to remove the protective screen and a stray spark damaged a valuable antique rug,” explains a story on WPIX’s website, pix11.com.

“Needless to say, the Mayor’s office was not receptive to the idea of letting WPIX come back and re-shoot the footage.”

A fireplace was located in Palo Alto, California and new footage shot—but really, there wasn’t one townhouse owner who could lend his or her fireplace to the film crew so the Yule Log could be from New York, for New York?

[Photos: Wikipedia]

Santa’s dashing appearance in an 1868 candy ad

December 18, 2017

He looks a lot like the modern-day Santa Claus: red coat, whiskers, a sled pulled by reindeer. (That pipe, of course, has been erased.)

This 1868 sugar plum advertisement featuring Santa appeared five years after Harper’s illustrator Thomas Nast famously reinvented the image of St. Nicholas from the “jolly old elf” in Clement Clark Moore’s poem to a grandfather-like guy in a red suit.

The US Confection Company, headquartered on West Broadway, wisely chose Santa to help shill their sugar plums—and Santa’s image has been used to sell products to children and adults ever since.

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910 has lots more about how New Yorkers invented the contemporary Christmas: the first public park tree lighting happened in Madison Square Park, electric lights were invented by a New Yorker, and the department stores of Ladies Mile claim the first holiday window displays.

 

Weird things done to New York brownstones

December 18, 2017

Few things are as lovely as a row of brownstones—a solid line of stoops and cornices signifying harmony, community, and Gilded Age New York charm.

I’m using brownstone as an all-purpose word for a New York rowhouse. Brownstones themselves were kind of the McMansions of the late 19th century; every newly minted banker or merchant had to have one.

But while it’s the dream of many city residents to rent or own one of these beauties and have it restored to its 19th century grandeur, not everyone thinks so.

On some of the most fashionable brownstone blocks are strange architectural upgrades that would puzzle Gilded Age New Yorkers—like this one on East 51st Street (top photo), swathed in glass with what looks like a giant punch card over the facade.

Some brownstones still look the part—at least, the top half of the house does. This one in Flatiron has an ugly storefront addition covering the parlor and second floors.

On East 71st Street is a building I like to call the bubble brownstone. As far as I know, this is the only brownstone in the city with glass oval pods for windows.

I don’t know what to make of this brickface former brownstone on West 18th Street except that it has a very 1970s feel.

It looks like a concrete grill or lattice is covering the entire front of this rowhouse on the Upper East Side. I wonder what kind of light comes in. It was designed by a Modernist architect in the 1950s.

Finally, here’s a brownstone that looks like it’s undergone the Brutalist treatment in Chelsea. Hey, at least the owner has his or her own garage.

Medieval men on a 1920s Park Avenue building

December 18, 2017

If you’re an admirer of New York’s many elegant prewar apartment houses, then you probably know Alex and Leo Bing, the two brothers responsible for these stately buildings with Art Deco touches.

The Bing & Bing pedigree is always mentioned in real estate ads. But the brothers themselves—progressive-minded lawyers who also devoted themselves philanthropy and to affordable public housing—have largely been forgotten.

There is one whimsical tribute to these two brothers who had so much influence on the cityscape, however; it’s on the facade of a residence they built at 1000 Park Avenue.

Architect Emery Roth reportedly based the two Medieval figures flanking the entrance to this luxury coop after the Bing Brothers, who hired Roth to design the spacious, airy apartments in so many of their buildings.

Maybe the Bings appreciated the arts like the Medici family of the Renaissance? Inside joke? I don’t think Roth ever explained, but he decorated the third-floor of the facade with lots of fanciful Medieval figures.

[Second photo: Douglas Elliman Real Estate]

What did the FA phone exchange stand for?

December 11, 2017

While enjoying the views along Edgecombe Avenue in Upper Manhattan, I spotted this rusted sign containing an old two-letter phone exchange, once ubiquitous in New York until they were phased out in the 1960s.

The FA exchange is a mystery. Gun Hill is a road in the Bronx, and the Gun Hill Fence Company, founded in 1959, still operates in the Bronx, now in a site on Boston Road.

Fordham is my best (but probably not accurate) guess. These old two-letter telephone exchanges are fun to find in hidden pockets of New York City.

Christmas in the tenements in the Gilded Age

December 11, 2017

On the Lower East Side, “during these late December evenings, the holiday atmosphere is beginning to make itself felt.”

“It is a region of narrow streets with tall five-story, even seven-story, tenements lining either side of the way and running thick as a river with a busy and toilsome throng.”

So wrote Theodore Dreiser (below photo) around the turn of the last century, in a dispatch chronicling New York’s poorest, who lived between Franklin and 14th Streets.

Dreiser was a Midwestern transplant who moved to Gotham in 1894 to pursue a literary career. He himself lived in shabby apartments as he worked as a journalist, writing short prose pieces like this holiday-themed piece that gave a sensitive yet unsentimental portrayal of Christmas among the struggling.

“The ways are already lined with carts of of special Christmas goods, such as toys, candies, Christmas tree ornaments, feathers, ribbons, jewelry, purses, fruit, and in a few wagons small Christmas greens” like holly wreaths and mistletoe, wrote Dreiser.

“Work has not stopped in the factories or stores, and yet these streets are literally packed with people, of all ages, sizes and nationalities, and the buying is lively.”

“Meats are selling in some of the cheaper butcher shops for ten, fifteen, and twenty cents a pound, picked chickens in barrels at fifteen and twenty.”

“A whole section of Elizabeth Street is given up to the sale of stale fish at ten and fifteen cents a pound, and the crowd of Italians, Jews and Bohemians who are taking advantage of these modest prices is swarming over the sidewalk and into the gutters.”

“The street, with its mass of life, lingers in this condition until six o’clock, when the great shops and factories turn loose their horde of workers. Then into the glare of these electric-lighted streets the army of shop girls and boys begins to pour. . . .”

“The street cars which ply this area are packed as only the New York street car companies can pack their patrons, and that in cold, old, dirty and even vile cars.”

Dreiser had much to say about the houses of these hordes.

“Up the dark stairways they are pouring into tier upon tier of human hives. . . . Small, dark one-, two-, and three-room apartments where yet on this Christmas evening [they] are still at work sewing pants, making flowers, curling feathers, or doing any other of a hundred tenement tasks to help out the income supplied by the one or two who work out.”

Dreiser visits a family of Bohemians on Elizabeth Street who curl feathers at home for 40 cents a day, and he explains their circumstances: rent is $3 per week, food, clothes, and coal, and gas cost $6 more.

“However, on this Christmas Eve it has been deemed a duty to have some diversion, and so, although the round of weary labor may not be thus easily relaxed, the wife has been deputed to do the Christmas shopping and has gone forth into the crowded East Side street,” returning with a meat bone, vegetables, small candles, and a few toys for the children in the household on Christmas morning.

“Thus it runs, mostly, throughout the entire region on this joyous occasion, a wealth of feeling and desire expressing itself through the thinnest and most meager material forms.”

“Horses, wagons, fire engines, dolls—these are what the thousands upon thousands of children whose faces are pressed closely against the commonplace window panes are dreaming about, and the longing that is thereby expressed is the strongest evidence of the indissoluble link which binds these weakest and most wretched elements of society to the best and most successful.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more photos and stories of what a New York Christmas was like for the poor, rich, and emerging middle classes.

[Photos: NYPL, LOC]

Cabins and cottages on top of Manhattan roofs

December 11, 2017

Who says you can’t have your own secret little cabin perched high in the sky in the middle of Manhattan?

It looks like one tenement owner made a cabin-like home complete with a shingled roof on top of this otherwise ordinary tenement on East 57th Street at about First Avenue.

It’s nothing fancy, but there’s a little fence around the edge of the roof, creating something of a front yard six flights up in the air. And the door even has an awning.

The people who made the 57th Street cabin have nothing on the cottage dwellers who occupy this beachy home perched on the roof of Third Avenue and 13th Street. (See the for sale ad and interior photos from 2015 courtesy EV Grieve.)

And then there’s the lucky inhabitants on top of 719 Greenwich Street in the West Village, who opened their porch (look, a porch swing!) and gave the New York Times a peek into their hidden tenement-top cottage in 2006.

[Third photo: New York Times]

The owls that adorn New York school buildings

December 4, 2017

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a progressive-minded New York embarked on a great mission to construct school buildings.

Under the direction of the superintendent of school buildings C.B.J. Snyder, hundreds of schools went up in neighborhoods all across the newly consolidated city.

Snyder thought of schools as civic monuments, and he designed them so they maximized sunlight and ventilation and inspired kids to learn.

I don’t know if these were part of Snyder’s plans, but so many of the schools built around this time feature owls on the facade—classical symbols of knowledge and wisdom, like this owl outside an elementary school in the East Village, the former PS 61.

Owls can be found adorning all kinds of city buildings, not just schools. Some owls even reside in city parks.

This 1840 spectacular costume ball started it all

December 4, 2017

The elegant Brevoort mansion (left, in 1912), which stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street for an astounding 91 years, doesn’t look like the kind of place that hosted serious partying.

But inside these walls was the city’s first extravagant costume ball, credited with launching the fad for the blowout spectacular balls beloved by society throughout the 19th century.

The story of the ball begins with the story of the mansion, commissioned in 1834 by Henry Brevoort. He was a descendant of the Brevoort family—wealthy landowners who trace their Manhattan lineage to the 17th century.

Fifth Avenue at the time was little more than a dirt road. But fashionable New Yorkers were moving to Washington Square, and Henry Brevoort decided to build a Greek Revival house (below, 1915) and surrounding gardens nearby.

It must have been a bucolic home in those early years, a place Brevoort could entertain literary friends like Washington Irving (below left).

After hosting several smaller parties, the Brevoorts had a bigger plan. In winter 1840, they sent out invitations for a costume ball like the ones taking Europe by storm at the time. (This image below, from Demorest’s magazine, gives an idea of these balls).

It wasn’t the first costume ball in New York, but it was the one that dazzled Gotham and pushed the city into ball fever.

“The fashionable set are remarkably well off just now in the possession of an inexhaustible topic of conversation in Mrs. Brevoort’s bal costume, costume a la rigueur, which is to come off next Thursday evening,” wrote former mayor Philip Hone (below right) in his diary days before the affair.

“Nothing else is talked about; the ladies’ heads are turned nearly off their shoulders; the whiskers of the dandies assume a more ferocious curl in anticipation of the effect they are to produce; and even my peaceable domicile is turned topsy-turvy by the ‘note of preparation’ which is heard.”

The lucky invitees showed up at the mansion on February 24. Hone, dressed as Cardinal Wolsey, and his family arrived at 10 p.m.

“Soon after our party arrived the five rooms on the first floor (including the library) were completely filled,” wrote Hone.

“I should think there were about 500 ladies and gentlemen . . . many who went there hoping each to be the star of the evening found themselves eclipsed by some superior luminary, or at best forming a unit in the milky way.”

Such great interest in the ball didn’t go unnoticed by James Gordon Bennett, the canny publisher of the New York Herald. With Brevoort’s consent, he sent a reporter in costume dressed as a knight to report all the details of the ball—perhaps the city’s first celebrity gossip coverage.

Among the costumes were a fox hunter, a peasant, a German miner, an “Arab boy,” a “Dutch girl,” “Spanish muleteer,” and Greek gods and goddesses like Diana.

The ball was a great success, ushering in the era of famous balls given by Mrs. Astor, the Patriarch balls at Delmonico’s, and of course the city’s most notorious ball of all, Alva Vanderbilt’s costume gala at the other end of Fifth Avenue in 1883—so important that it changed New York society.

The Brevoort mansion remained until 1925—a lone reminder of wealth and society in the antebellum city (above in 1903).

[First and second photos: MCNY; third image: NYPL; fourth and fifth photos: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MCNY]