What to order from a 1950s Mother’s Day menu from the Gramercy Hotel

May 5, 2022

Vintage menus from New York City hotels reveal a lot about how food choices and dining habits have changed over the years.

Case in point is this Mother’s Day menu from the luxurious Hotel Gramercy Park for May 8, 1955. The menu is for dinner, with dinner starting at noon. It’s a reminder that what we generally call “dinner” today was typically served a lot earlier in the afternoon; this mention of Sunday in New York during the Gilded Age has it that dinner was always served at 1 p.m. A smaller evening meal would be supper.

The menu itself also has a very feminized look to it, with floral images and pink type. In the 1950s, I doubt anyone complained. Today’s customers might take issue with the traditional female feel.

The menu items, though, are quite hearty, with an assortment of old-school appetizers (stuffed celery hearts, seafood cocktail) and 14 entrees (plus a cold buffet) you would expect from a menu in the 1950s. Lobster Newburgh has an old New York backstory, as it supposedly was first served at Gilded Age favorite Delmonico’s in 1876.

The desserts look divine. I wonder how many moms chose the stewed prunes over the layer cake? As for beverages, this might be the oldest mention I’ve seen on a menu of iced coffee.

[Menu: NYPL]

Just how old is the lovely stained glass ceiling at Veniero’s pasticceria?

May 2, 2022

There’s a lot to love about Veniero’s, the cafe and bakery on East 11th Street since 1894. First and foremost are the pastries, but also the tin ceiling, the old-school glass bakery counters, and the wonderful pink and green neon sign on the facade.

But what I noticed for the first time during a recent visit for gelato was the spectacular stained glass panels spanning the length of the ceiling, with their unusual red, gold, and green floral motifs.

I knew they must have been in the cafe for decades, and I wanted to know just how long and where they came from. On one hand, a 1990 New York Times article about bakeries in Manhattan has it that the stained glass was only installed in 1984.

“The only change over the years [at Veniero’s] has been the addition six years ago of an adjoining warm enclave, with a ceiling of stained-glass panels and the original pressed tin,” the article stated.

However, Veniero’s own website suggests the stained glass dates to the 1930s. During the Depression, owner Michael Veniero left the day-to-day management of the store to his cousin Frank.

“Under Frank’s leadership and eventually ownership, Veniero’s evolved into what it is today,” the site says. Frank “filled his new kitchen with Italian bakers and decorated his new cafe with imported Neapolitan glass that still gracefully adorns our ceiling today.”

This 1850s Lower Manhattan image might be one of the oldest street photos

May 2, 2022

In the 1850s, New York City’s population reached 590,000. Central Park was mostly an idea, the urban city barely existed beyond 42nd Street, and mass transit meant taking a streetcar pulled by horses.

And at some point in that decade, a dry goods store employee turned daguerreotype studio owner captured this remarkable image of a stretch of Greenwich Street, with more than a dozen men standing with their hands in their pockets beside wood and brick storefronts.

The photographer was Abraham Bogardus. From the 1840s through the 1860s, Bogardus ran his own studio in various locations in Lower Manhattan. Two of those locations were on Greenwich Street: first at 217 Greenwich, and then at 229 Greenwich, according to the International Center for Photography (ICP).

Like the other daguerreotype studio owners congregated around Lower Broadway in those decades, Bogardus mostly did portraits. Considering how popular daguerreotypes were at the time with the public, he likely made a good living.

Yet something must have compelled him to step outside his studio door and capture what he saw, and intentionally or not create one of the oldest surviving street photographs of New York City. It’s not a daguerreotype but an ambrotype, according to Invaluable.com, which posted the image when it was up for auction. (It recently sold.)

Abraham Bogardus in the 1870s

An ambrotype involves a slightly different process than a daguerreotype but is quicker and cheaper to produce, according to the Library of Congress. “Photographers often applied pigments to the surface of the plate to add color,” the LOC stated of ambrotype producers—which could account for the red brick buildings in an otherwise black and white image.

Besides Baker & Sadler at the far left, the store signs are hard to read. Invaluable.com says one sign advertises a bakery and confectionary, others are for a cobbler, a drugstore, a cabinet making firm, and a jeweler.

Could these men be owners and employees of the stores they stand in front of—or are they practicing the time-honored New York City activity of hanging around on the street whiling away the time?

[Top image: invaluable.com, second image: Wikipedia]

City Hall festooned with flags and finery to celebrate ‘Tunnel Day’

May 2, 2022

New York used to really celebrate itself. On the opening day of the Brooklyn Bridge in May 1883, fireworks blazed the skies, and a flotilla of ships sailed triumphantly on the East River. When the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in October 1886, the first ticker-tape parade was held amid a day of festivities.

And in 1900, city officials were apparently so excited by the idea of the new subway, they couldn’t wait until the system was up and running to throw a party.

So a celebration open to the public dubbed “tunnel day” was scheduled to mark the start of the digging of the first tunnel and the beginning of underground rapid transit.

Tunnel Day happened on March 24, 1900, and City Hall was decked out with flags, banners, and bunting. Makes sense: City Hall was the focal point for city politicians and other bigwigs, but it was also the site of the groundbreaking of the first station—the “crown jewel” City Hall IRT station.

City Hall Park was also decorated to the hilt. “They are the finest seen in years,” wrote the Evening World the day before Tunnel Day. “The park has become an aerial maze of bright colors. Flags flutter from the treetops and branches.”

Thousands of people watched from the sidewalks of Broadway and Park Row rooftops, 1,000 policemen kept crowds under control, bands played, and officials gave speeches. Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck turned “the first spadeful of earth” with a silver spade, the World noted on March 25. (Crowds tried to grab some of that dirt as souvenirs, alarming the police.)

Tunnel Day was a grand display of pride and progress at a time when the city was on the upswing—in population, land mass, and financial and cultural power. Four years later in October 1904, an even more massive celebration commemorated the opening of the first leg of the New York City subway.

City Hall was covered in flags and bunting once again…but the tradition seems to have died out. I can’t recall a recent event that brought out so many flags and banners.

[Top image: MCNY, X2010.11.584; second image: Evening World; third image: NYPL]

A painter’s dazzling mosaic of energy and color in 1901 Madison Square

April 28, 2022

Painter Maurice Prendergast has been described as a “post-Impressionist.” I’m not quite sure what that means, but he has a unique, early 1900s style that turns city spaces into dazzling mosaics and perfectly captures the kaleidoscopic vitality of New York’s streets and parks.

The painting above, “Madison Square,” is from 1901 and is part of the collection at the Whitney Museum.

I can’t make out the words in the sign below “Buffalo NY,” but I can feel the women and girls and drivers and strollers, all out for a day in a park that was much more elite a generation earlier but has been ceded to the masses. Judging by all the umbrellas shielding female faces, the sun must be quite warm.

Prendergast seemed to like scenes of leisure and play, like these—also in New York City parks.

The Fifth Avenue wedding present gifted to these rich Gilded Age newlyweds

April 28, 2022

Getting married during the Gilded Age when you’re young, rich, and from a famous family meant making lots of plans. The right church for the ceremony had to be booked, a grand reception arranged, distinguished guests invited, and a proper wedding party put into place.

The almost-completed Payne Whitney House, 973 Fifth Avenue; the James B. Duke mansion has not been built yet

And in an era when young people generally resided with their families before marriage, a couple also had secure their own place to live after the wedding bells finished ringing.

Payne Whitney, undated

Payne Whitney and his bride, Helen Hay, both 26 years old, luckily had that taken care of for them. Whitney was gifted the ultimate Gilded Age wedding present when his wealthy Civil War colonel uncle, Oliver H. Payne, purchased a 70 by 100 foot plot of land on Fifth Avenue between 78th and 79th Street and intended to build a mansion for his “favorite” nephew and new wife.

Fifth Avenue and 79th Street in 1911: corner left is the Isaac Brokaw Mansion, corner middle is the Fletcher Mansion, and attached is the Payne Whitney House. The James B. Duke mansion is on the far right.

This gift of a Fifth Avenue mansion was actually announced at the wedding, held on February 6, 1902 in Washington, DC. (Hay’s father, John Milton Hay, was a DC insider, serving as President Lincoln’s private secretary and then as Secretary of State in the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations.)

The name of the mansion giver was kept secret, but a month later the New York Times revealed that it was Oliver Payne and printed some financial details of the yet-to-be-built home—which would be end up between the splendid 1899 Isaac Fletcher chateau-like mansion and then the James B. Duke mansion when that one was completed in 1912.

The Payne Whitney mansion is on the far left; Duke mansion is at the center

“The plot has been held at $525,000, and it is said that the price paid by Col. Payne is little, if any, below that figure,” the Times wrote on March 8, 1902. “The mansion to be erected thereon will undoubtedly cost as much more, so that the total value of the wedding present will not be less than $1,000,000.”

Who would be hired to design this mansion, which would front Fifth Avenue at a prime location of Millionaire Mile? Stanford White—who also happened to be a guest at the wedding.

Helen Hay Whitney

“Designed by White in 1902, the house contained forty rooms,” wrote Wayne Craven in his book Stanford White: Decorator in Opulence and Dealer in Antiquities. “Construction continued until 1905, and work on the interiors dates from 1904 on.”

It’s not clear where Payne Whitney (whose mother was one of the fabled ‘Astor 400’) and Helen Hay lived while their mansion was going up. But after the wedding they spent a monthlong honeymoon in Georgia, and then after a brief stop in New York City went to Europe for several months.

Another view of the mansion

One major interruption during construction, unfortunately, was White’s demise in 1906; the architect was shot and killed on the roof of his magnificent Madison Square Garden. By the time of White’s death, “most major work on the interiors was completed, but the house was not actually finished until 1909,” stated Craven.

It took seven years to build, but what a stunning palace it was. What became known as the Payne Whitney house at 972 Fifth Avenue “was designed in high Italian Renaissance style, the curved granite front, covered with rich classical ornament, rises five stories,” wrote Barbara Diamonstein-Spielvogel in The Landmarks of New York, Fifth Edition.

Looking good in a 1939-1941 photo

“Winged cherubs fill the spandrels of the round-arched parlor floor windows, which are flanked with Ionic pilasters,” continued Diamonstein-Spielvogel. “The Renaissance treatment of the upper stories, with Corinthian pilasters and carved classical figures in low relief, is particularly handsome.”

The Gilded Age was at its end when the mansion was completed, but the Whitneys had a fortune with which to live well for the next two decades with their two children. Payne, a Yale Law School graduate, launched his career as a financier and thoroughbred horse breeder. Helen was an accomplished author and poet.

This looks like the Venetian Room, still viewable today

After her husband passed away suddenly in 1927 while playing tennis, Mrs. Whitney became a renowned philanthropist and living in the mansion until she died in 1944.

“The Republic of France has been the owner of this impressive mansion since 1952,” stated the Landmarks Preservation Commission in a 1970 report designating the Payne Whitney mansion a New York City landmark.

The Payne Whitney Mansion in the middle, earlier this year

The French have been good to the house, keeping it open and installing a beautiful two-story French-English bookstore called Albertine. Curious visitors can wander through the impressive front doors to a rotunda with a marble fountain, then view a gilded former receiving room called the Venetian Room (above), furnished with pieces from Europe bought by White and the Whitneys.

Long after the Whitneys departed, the house stands as a Gilded Age reminder on an avenue with few mansions left from this elegant era. There is one curious treasure inside worth noting: a statue (below), The Young Archer, which has been in the marble rotunda for decades, is “now thought to be an early work by Michelangelo,” according to a website about the mansion maintained by the French Embassy.

[Top photo: MCNY, 90.44.1.862; second photo: FindaGrave; third photo: NYPL; fourth photo: New-York Historical Society; fifth photo: LOC; sixth photo: MCNY 90.44.1.864; seventh photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; eighth photo: MCNY 90.44.1.423]

Three mythological Art Deco figures on a 57th Street apartment building

April 25, 2022

Walk along 57th Street, and you’ll see many examples of Art Deco architecture and ornamentation: geometrical shapes, zigzags, and even sculptures of mighty male figures toiling in the modern city. That last one is part of the facade of the 40-story Fuller Building.

Farther east, where office towers recede and elegant apartment buildings line quieter stretches of East Midtown, there’s a different example of Art Deco artistry on one specific residence.

The building is 320 East 57th Street. Take a look at the images above the entrance: three nude women hold hands in a kind of dance, surrounded by floral motifs. Helpful Ephemeral New York readers pointed out that these are the Three Graces, the goddess daughters of Zeus in Greek mythology. Each daughter bestows a particular gift on humanity: mirth, elegance, and youth and beauty.

The bas relief appears to be modeled after this sculpture by Antonio Canova from 1814-1817, which is currently housed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

I imagine the Three Graces has been here since the building was completed in 1926, according to Streeteasy—which attributes the ironwork in the lobby to French ironworker Edgar Brandt, a giant of Art Deco design.

Could Brandt be the sculptor behind the figures? I saw no attribution in the building, which only has a plaque outside noting that Paulette Goddard and Erich Maria Remarque resided there.

A peek inside a 1946 Yankees program—and the New York brands that advertised inside

April 25, 2022

I have no idea what a Yankees program looks like today. But I do know what it looked like in 1946, when the Bronx Bombers hosted the Cleveland Indians either in late April/early May, June, or August of that postwar year.

Strangely, the 16-page program doesn’t say when the series takes place. But it mentions the upcoming All-Star Game at Fenway Park, so it must have been before July.

The lineup of legendary players to take the field that day included Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, and Bill DIckey, with Bill Bevens and Spud Chandler listed as pitchers. More interesting to me are the ads throughout the 16-page program—like Ruppert Beer.

The Ruppert ad for this Yorkville-brewed beer isn’t much of a surprise because the Yankees were owned by Jacob Ruppert from 1915 until his death in 1939. A plaque recognizing his devotion to his team stands in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park.

I’ve never heard of Major’s Cabin Grill. It’s on 34th Street, a long subway ride from Yankee Stadium, but why not? I like the warning about betting and gambling at the stadium.

I’m glad to see Schrafft’s make an appearance in the program; the restaurant chain famous for its ice cream was highly popular at the time. Apparently the ice cream bars they sold to fans at the stadium were in short supply.

The Hotel New Yorker today may not be a five-star kind of place, but it had a better reputation in the mid-20th century. This is the first time I’ve seen it described as a “home of major-league ball clubs.”

Here’s the actual scorecard, plus some fun ads on the sides—especially for the famous Hotel Astor rooftop. At one time, this was a glamorous place for dining, dancing, and catching a cool breeze in a city without air conditioning.

The mysterious faded house outline on the side of a Chelsea tenement

April 25, 2022

In the under-construction contemporary city, you see them all the time—the faint outlines of roof lines, chimneys, windows, and staircases. They’re the phantom buildings of another New York, fascinating palimpsests from bulldozed edifices of Gotham’s past.

150 Ninth Avenue, with the phantom remains of 148 Ninth Avenue on its side

This site is a big fan of these ghost outlines and features them regularly. But recently I came across one in Chelsea with the steel beams and concrete floors of a new structure creeping up to subsume it.

So before the faded outline disappeared from sight behind a new luxury condo or co-op, I tried to delve into the backstory of what was once 148 Ninth Avenue, at 19th Street.

Examples of circa-1820s Federal-Style houses still extant on Harrison Street

Because of what looks like a steep peaked roofline going down the back—and also partly in the front—I assumed number 148 had been a Federal-style, early 19th century home. These modest brick houses for the middle class merchants and artisans were popular in the 1820s and 1830s. Humble but sturdy, they typically reached three stories and featured dormer windows on the third floor.

Many Federal-style homes have been demolished over the decades, small and out of fashion. But a good number remain, with a handful on lower Eighth and Ninth Avenues. They were likely built when this area was on the outskirts of the newly planned Chelsea neighborhood, which rose from the 18th and early 19th century estate of Captain Thomas Clarke, which he called Chelsea.

148 Ninth Avenue

Unfortunately, when it came to finding a photo or illustration of a former Federal-style house at number 148, I came up empty.

Instead of an early 19th century home with peaked roof and dormer windows, the photos I found of 148 Ninth Avenue depicted a typical late 19th century walkup tenement (above and below), similar to but not quite a match to its neighbors running north from numbers 150 to 158.

148 Ninth Avenue in 1939-1941

I don’t know when the corner tenement was torn down. But once it was gone, it seemed to reveal the ghost of the Federal-style house, strangely preserved enough so passersby like myself could imagine the family that inhabited it in the 1820s or 1830s—maybe operating a store downstairs and living on the second and third levels.

From the New York Daily Herald, 1873

Decades later, the little house may have been sliced into separate apartments, as single-family houses in New York City almost always were. Perhaps this furnished room advertised for rent in the New York Daily Herald in 1873 was one of the carved up flats (above)?

The roar and grit from the Ninth Avenue elevated, which dominated the avenue by the late 1860s and lowered the value of the area as a residential enclave, might have hastened the house’s demise.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The touching 1913 dedication over a Grand Central Terminal entrance

April 21, 2022

When Grand Central Terminal opened to the public on February 2, 1913, the railroad barons who financed the $35 million project could have dedicated the stunning terminal to their board of directors, or to the city officials who cut through red tape to help make this third version of a central train station at 42nd Street on Manhattan’s East Side a reality.

They could have eschewed a dedication altogether, too. After all, do most rail terminals, or other major urban development projects, have dedications?

Grand Central in 1915, two years after opening

Instead, they decided to dedicate Grand Central to the people who actually labored to build it.

“To all those with head heart and hand toiled in the construction of this monument to the public service this is inscribed,” the dedication reads, above an entrance on the 42nd Street side and under one of the many spectacular clocks across all the halls of this city treasure.

Something about the modest inscription makes Grand Central even more of a spectacular place than it already is.

[Second image: MCNY, 1915, X2011.34.3570]