An elegy for Lord and Taylor—and its tea rooms

August 31, 2020

After Lord & Taylor opened its new Italian Renaissance–inspired flagship building on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street in February 1914, the legendary department store continued its reputation as a retail pioneer.

The store was built with its own electricity generator and concert hall, and in 1916, the beloved holiday windows made their debut. Later, extra mirrors were added to selling floors and dressing rooms—something now totally standard for a department store—so customers had a better view of themselves and the merchandise.

But one feature Lord & Taylor installed in the new building was definitely more old school: the in-store tea room.

Tea rooms and dining areas could be found in many stores on Ladies Mile—the trapezoid shaped enclave between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th to 23rd Streets where Gilded Age women could shop, mingle, and enjoy each other’s company as they partook in the era’s consumerism. (Lord & Taylor built a magnificent store on this strip in 1870 at Broadway and 20th Street.)

As the city marched northward and department stores like Lord & Taylor relocated to Herald Square and Fifth Avenue, they brought their dining areas and tea rooms with them.

What’s so special about a department store tea room? It may sound strange to our sensibilities today, but even after the turn of the last century, women didn’t dine alone in restaurants.

The presence of a solo woman who simply wanted to rest and get a bite to eat after browsing the latest fashions might suggest she had illicit motives for being there.

And she certainly couldn’t sit at a saloon; bars were all-male preserves, and proper women didn’t drink (at least not in public).

But women shoppers needed a place to rest and refuel, especially since shopping had become something of a leisure activity, and it was one of the few activities women could do without being escorted by men.

To fill the void were confectionaries and tea rooms, some of which were inside a department store itself.

These menus from Lord & Taylor’s in-store tea room, from 1914 and 1917, can give you an idea of what (mainly) female shoppers, in groups or on their own, dined on during their shopping trips.

Much of the fare is light, and all of it non-alcoholic. Coup Julia Marlowe sound very early 1900s; she was a famous actress of the time with a spectacular mansion on Riverside Drive.

The tea rooms are gone, as is the 38th Street Lord & Taylor store. This week comes news that the company—which has its roots in a humble dry goods store opened on today’s Lower East Side in 1824—is going out of business for good.

If Lord & Taylor’s time has come, we’ll have to accept it—while remembering that in big and small ways, the store helped shape shopping habits in the late 19th and early 20th city.

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

The most beautiful storage facility in New York

August 24, 2020

When it comes to finding a place to store all the things that no longer fit into your apartment, you could find a storage company that offers the least expensive deal.

Or you go by beauty and history and schlep your stuff to Day & Meyer, Murray & Young Corp, a magnificent Gothic (or Art Deco?) fortress on Second Avenue between 61st and 62nd Streets.

Completed in 1928, the 15-story tower offers steel vaults “which travel by truck and are conveyed to racks in our warehouse,” the company website explains, noting that they started in an era when storage was moved via horses and carts.

Store your things here, and you’ll be in good company. According to a 2011 New York Times story, this is the storage space of New York’s social register, the wealthiest families, most prestigious art dealers, and grandest museums.”

I just dig the building, and the old-timey lettering of the company name over the entrance.

An Impressionist paints Brooklyn by the water

August 24, 2020

After studying art in Munich, refining his eclectic Impressionist style across Europe, and creating an elegant studio on East 10th Street in Manhattan that reflected his flamboyant persona, painter William Merritt Chase moved to Brooklyn.

[“Afternoon by the Sea, Gravesend Bay” 1888]

It was 1887. The 37-year-old had just gotten married, and he and his new bride chose to live with his parents at their comfortable Brooklyn home as they began having kids.

It’s no surprise, then, that the booming city of Brooklyn was the subject of many of Chase’s landscape paintings.

[“Stormy Day Bath Beach,” 1888]

Chase painted scenes in Prospect Park, Tompkins Park, the Navy Yard, and other lush, verdant parts of the city that reflected Brooklyn’s natural (if landscaped) beauty.

But he also depicted Brooklyn’s beaches—not the honky tonk, tawdry scene at Coney Island but the quieter upper class areas along Gravesend Bay.

[“Bath Beach—a Sketch,” 1888]

By the 1880s, after the railroads came in and made it easier for vacationers to reach Brooklyn’s beaches, Coney Island and Brighton Beach weren’t the only areas that became recreation destinations.

The upper part of Gravesend also evolved into an elite resort and entertainment area, and the resort neighborhood of Bath Beach was created with a nod toward Bath, England.

[“Gravesend Bay (the Lower Bay),” 1889]

Bath Beach had hotels, yacht racing, bathing, and family-friendly entertainment “upon the soft, sea-washed sands,” as one 1887 Brooklyn beach guidebook described it. Gravesend was best-known for its racetrack, which attracted throngs of fans.

Merritt did venture near Coney Island at least once. In “Landscape Near Coney Island,” one icon of Sodom by the Sea can be seen in the background: Coney’s elephant-shaped hotel, made famous when it went up in the 1880s.

[“Landscape Near Coney Island,” date unknown]

The Impressionist painter and his family didn’t stay very long in Brooklyn. In 1891, Merritt became the director of the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art.

His waterside landscapes after that point reflected the sunny, white sandy beaches of the Eastern End of Long Island, where the school was located.

Tenements go down, and a church reemerges

August 24, 2020

For decades, passersby on 79th Street between First and York Avenues could only see the facade of gorgeous, Gothic-style St. Monica’s Catholic Church, with its intricate stonework, spires, and wood doors at the main entrance.

Though this church, which was built in 1906, extends almost all the way to 80th Street, both sides of the historic sanctuary were long blocked from view by other buildings.

On the right is the church rectory, and on the left was a freestanding early 1900s tenement. At the corner stood a row of nine similar tenements stretching from 79th to 80th Streets. (At right, 1939, and below, 1940)

But in the 2000s, a developer came along.

Eyeing the corner for a new mixed-use building, Extell Development Company bought up all the tenements and demolished them during the summer of 2019, leaving what Our Town nicely described as the “black hole” of East 79th Street.

Nearly a year later, the black hole is still there, behind a plywood barricade. Work on the site seems to be stalled.

It’s an eyesore, but there is an upside to the open space, at least until construction inevitably ramps up.

For the first time in perhaps a century, it’s possible to see the full length of St. Monica’s from the street, including the enormous and beautiful stained glass windows that make a walk down First Avenue a little more inspiring.

St. Monica’s doesn’t get the architectural love it deserves. But the church and parish have a long history in this stretch of Yorkville.

Established in 1879, St. Monica’s served a mostly Irish-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—when Irish immigrants and their descendants followed the development of elevated trains and streetcar lines and moved to Yorkville.

In the early 20th century, Hungarian New Yorkers migrated to East 79th Street, opening Hungarian restaurants and businesses and founding cultural organizations and churches in what was then called “Little Hungary.”

Two of those churches, St. Stephen’s and St. Elizabeth’s, merged with St. Monica’s in recent years.

The parish is now officially known as “St Monica-St Elizabeth of Hungary-St Stephen of Hungary”—a long name but one that hints at a long history, too.

[Second photo: NYPL; third photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services Tax Photo]

Hanging laundry in a tenement backyard, 1912

August 17, 2020

John Sloan painted many rooftop scenes, typically depicting the ordinary activities he would see on the Greenwich Village and Chelsea roofs of his neighbors.

In 1912, a woman hanging her laundry to dry apparently caught his eye, and the painting “A Woman’s Work” is the result.

It’s Sloan at his best: her face is turned away while she secures the garments to the rope, and the laundry lines and tenements in the background seem to isolate her from the rest of the city.

The painting belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art. “With its generally sunny mood, the painting lacks the nightmarish qualities of contemporary photographs of slum conditions in New York by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine,” the museum states. “Nevertheless, it offers a window view on how poor and working-class residents lived in America’s biggest city — and how laws and regulations shaped their world.”

How NYC taught school during a lethal outbreak

August 17, 2020

School districts all over the country are facing a dilemma right now. Should they hold classes in school buildings—or keep schools closed, as they have been since the coronavirus pandemic began, and continue teaching kids at home via digital classes?

In the early 1900s, New York school and health officials faced a similar dilemma. So they came up with a novel way to teach kids safely under the threat of a lethal infection: they built outdoor and open-air classrooms on rooftops, in schoolyards, and even on ferryboats (above, 1908).

Pioneered in Germany in the early 1900s, fresh-air classrooms, as they were also known, were adopted by some New York City schools to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in the city’s crowded, airless school buildings.

Tuberculosis may not have been a full-fledged pandemic in New York at the time. But the “white plague,” also known as the “captain of the men of death,” was Gotham’s leading killer in 1900.

A cure for TB wasn’t developed until the 1940s. In the 1900s and 1910s, treatment meant fresh air and sunlight. Prevention efforts included public health campaigns against spitting and building apartments and hospitals that allowed for better ventilation and light.

A school for kids stricken with TB opened on a ferry docked at the East River (top photo) in 1908. Four more ferries and the Vanderbilt Clinic on 16th Street were also converted into classrooms, with students gathered around on chairs and a teacher leading lessons, according to the 1918 book, Open-Air Schools.

Thanks to their success, public health officials began thinking about using the same strategy to prevent infections in kids who might be predisposed to the disease because of their home environment or their own physical health. They also proposed that so-called “normal” pupils would benefit as well.

So in 1909, the city set aside $6500 for the construction of open-air classrooms, according to the New York Times on October 30 of that year.

An elementary school on Carmine Street began holding “open-window” classes, as did a grade school in Chelsea. In these and other public schools, “there is no supplementary feeding, no rest period, and no extra clothes provided,” Open-Air Schools explained. “The children wear their street wraps in cold weather.”

[At right: A student in an outdoor class on the Lower East Side, 1910]

Horace Mann, the private school then located in Morningside Heights, also launched open-air classes. The school built open classrooms on the roof, with windowed walls on three sides of each room. “Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary.”

Kindergartners were not spared from the open-air school idea (above). Young kids at Brooklyn’s Friends School were taught on the roof. “As yet the children are wearing their own coats and wraps, but later in the season we expect to have sitting-out bags…only in the really cold weather are the blankets to wrap up the smaller children used,” a November 5, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article stated, quoting a teacher.

In the coldest weather, some schools provided students with a new garment called a “parka,” or “fuzzy Eskimo suit,” as one Brooklyn school described them in a 1933 Brooklyn Times Union article (photo above).

Other cities across the country launched their own outdoor or open-air classrooms, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston.

The open-air school movement seems to have died down by the 1930s though, perhaps because TB wasn’t quite as feared, and a new scourge—polio—began causing panic, especially in the summertime when public pools opened.

Could New York City kids (and their teachers) handle open-air or outdoor classes today? Interestingly, according to the newspaper sources used in this post, parents did not have a problem with the open-air policy.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: LOC; third photo: MCNY, 90.13.4.66; fourth photo: MCNY 90.13.4.68; fifth photo: MCNY 90.13.2.36; sixth photo: LOC; seventh photo: Brooklyn Times Union; eighth photo: LOC]

A 44th Street stable built in 1865 is a survivor

August 17, 2020

The postage stamp–size former stable on West 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is a Civil War era survivor.

Built as part of a row of carriage houses on this one-time “stable street” in 1865, it’s the only one that still stands, according to a 2001 New York Times article. And it appears remarkably similar to the way it must have looked more than 150 years ago.

Once horses and carriages went in and out of this charming little building, and grooms may have lived upstairs. Now, the arched windows and doorways have been painted a color that matches the sidewalk.

One doorway is boarded up, the main entrance has been bricked in, and the “for rent” sign is obscured by the kind of wood boards merchants hastily put up in the spring to protect their property from rioters.

It certainly wouldn’t have been boarded up in Gilded Age New York. The first owner of the stable was Wedworth Clarke, an oil dealer living in a brownstone at 55 West 45th Street, according to the Times article.

Clarke may have used the stable to house carriages designed for ordinary use on city streets. But this was trotting horse country in the 1870s, explains a plaque closer to the Sixth Avenue side of the block near the Algonquin Hotel.

At the time, the area “was a hub for much of the trotting activity during one of the high points of harness horse history.” Trotters owned by Gilded Age wealthy men with last names like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller kept their horses within a half mile, the plaque reads.

In the late 19th century, fortunes rose and fell. The Clarke family “sold 47 West 44th Street to Edward Brandon, a prominent Wall Street stockbroker who often traded for the financier Jay Gould,” stated the Times.

“Brandon went bankrupt in 1890 and the next year had to sell 47 West 44th to Henry G. Trevor, a sportsman who founded the Shinnecock Golf Club on the East End of Long Island and lived at 6 East 45th Street.”

In 1900, with this stable block becoming more commercial and posh (Delmonico’s was about to open up on the Fifth Avenue end), Trevor sold the stable to the new Iroquois Hotel, which it was attached to.

The stable may have been used for deliveries or for guests who needed cab service to the theaters and restaurants of this newly minted entertainment district.

At some point in the ensuing decades, the stable became a restaurant itself. Here it is in a 1940 photo, renovated into a place with the gangland-like name of “Trigger’s.”

The trail goes cold after this. It served as the headquarters for a women’s press organization; it probably did more turns as a restaurant or bar.

In the 2001 New York Times article, a representative of the Iroquois Hotel said that the hotel planned to turn it into a banquet space, but that hasn’t happened. The next chapter for this 1865 stable remains in question.

[Fourth photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services Tax Photo]

The pageantry of The Drive in Central Park, 1905

August 10, 2020

As a social realist painter, William Glackens often depicted scenes of day-to-day life he witnessed in city parks, particularly Washington Square Park. (Makes sense; he lived on Washington Square South in the early 1900s.)

This time, he took his inspiration from Central Park. “The Drive, Central Park” was completed in 1905 and likely shows the East Drive, long the site of carriage parades among the wealthy.

It’s part of the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “In this canvas [Glackens] recorded the weekday ritual of wealthy Manhattanites parading through the park in their elegant horse-drawn carriages,” the caption states. “This tradition drew spectators eager to witness the pageantry, and for all involved, it was an opportunity to see and be seen.”

All the servants of a rich Gilded Age household

August 10, 2020

Whether you were an old money matron like Mrs. Astor or one of the “new rich” (hello, social climbing Alva Vanderbilt), all super wealthy New Yorkers during the city’s Gilded Age had one thing in common: a large staff of household servants.

While the man of the house tended to business concerns on Wall Street and enjoyed the company of other well-off men at private clubs, the woman of the house was tasked with overseeing multiple maids, butlers, and cooks, as well as nursemaids, coaches, and groomsmen, among others.

Depending on the family bank account and how large their mansion was, a newly minted millionaire household could employ 20 or so servants, who generally lived in the home on a floor devoted to servant rooms.

These rooms were typically near the roof, which was sooty and either too hot or cold, so not a choice place in the home for a family member.

During the Gilded Age, with fortunes being made and immigration high, a reported 16% of the population of New York City worked as a servant. They came from all ethnic groups, but many were Irish, German, or Scandinavian.

The “servant girl question” was often debated in the society pages of newspapers. Where do you find good help? How can you communicate a servant’s duties better? What should you pay them? (These concerns sound snooty, but they’re still being asked today when it come to domestic workers.)

Luckily, some informative writers put out books on the topic, including Mary Elizabeth Carter, who in 1903 published Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy.

Here, Carter laid out all the rules, particularly all the servants a rich family should employ (though that varied depending on a family’s needs), and what to pay them.

At the top of the hierarchy is the Superintending Housekeeper. Typically a woman, she oversees the rest of the household staff: she checks with the cook about the day’s menu, inspects all rooms for cleanliness, and she can take the place of the mistress of the household by hiring and firing other servants. Her monthly pay: $50-$150.

Next up is the Lady’s Maid, who worked hard for her $25-$40 a month. This servant handled her mistress’s toiletry needs, her clothes, and various tasks associated with her social engagements.

“However luxurious the surroundings, that is not an ideal life where one must constantly at the beck and call, or subject to the caprice, of another during all the 24 hours, day in and day out,” warns Carter.

The next level of maid is the house maid, or chambermaid. This servant would be assigned to a specific room or suite of rooms, responsible for dusting, bed-making (plus airing out bed linens), cleaning, and sweeping embers from the fireplace. Her salary is $18-$25 per month.

The Parlor Maid and Dining Hall Maid round out the maid list.

The parlor maid kept the parlor and family rooms in tip-top shape, while the Dining Hall Maid assisted in the servant dining room; she might be the only servant who served other servants. For their labor, they made $20-$30 monthly.

No functioning mansion could do without laundry workers, who washed not just clothes but rugs and bedcovers via boiling them and then laying everything out to dry (or pinning them up). A head laundress could expect $30 per month, while assistants might score $18 monthly.

On the male servant side, the Butler was of primo importance. “In every household of any pretension to fashion, the butler looms up an imposing figure,” notes Carter. “His dignity must never be impeached.”

The butler needed managing skills (for his staff of up to four assistants), good handwriting, and the ability to do basic bookkeeping. Carter leaves out his ideal monthly salary, but it must be comparable to the Superindending Housekeeper’s, I imagine.)

The “Useful Man” is a curious servant who functioned as a jack at all trades who brought wood for the fireplace, fixed things, and handled the hard labor of turning the wet laundry in the laundry room, among other duties. His monthly salary: $30-$40.

The Chef is the “gastronomical director” of the house, Carter writes, and his take-home would be $100. He might be French, as French food was quite faddish at the time. The chef could also be a female cook, as this illustration from Puck shows.

It was the chef’s job to go to markets and purchase the raw materials for the dishes he or she would whip up for the family—or for special dinners or social events that may require he bring in assistants to help.

Last but not least is the Valet. The valet’s counterpart is the lady’s maid; he’s a kind of personal assistant to the wealthy man of the household, pressing his clothes and preparing his bath. He will go everywhere with his master, even on trips. Carter leaves out his monthly salary, but it’s probably in the range of the lady’s maid.

There were other servants, of course: coachmen for the carriage, footmen, and grooms (who typically lived upstairs in the family stable). If children were in the household, a nursemaid would devote herself to their care. Scullery maids did the dirty work in the kitchen.

After the Gilded Age, the need for such an enormous servant staff wasn’t as great. Many of the early apartment buildings had staff servants of their own, and appliances took the place of a laundress, for example.

Though plenty of households employ “help” today, the line between servant and those being served is much blurrier than it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These days, you often hear a person boast that their nanny or live-in housekeeper is “part of the family.” The nanny or housekeeper, however, might feel differently.

[Top photo: MCNY, 93.1.1.20444; second and third images: Encyclopedia of Etiquette by Emily Holt; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: MCNY. 45.335.21; sixth and seventh images: Encyclopedia of Etiquette; eighth image: Puck; ninth image: unknown; tenth image: New York Herald, 1870s]

In 1886, this East 77th Street house was a church

August 10, 2020

The lovely little house caught my eye while I was walking a few blocks south of Yorkville toward First Avenue.

The enchanting Romanesque style, the peaked chapel-like roof, the two tall arched windows that looked like they were designed to hold stained glass—in this tiny dwelling’s earliest years, it had to have been a church.

Turns out, 429 East 77th Street was originally a church, built in 1886.

And up until it was sold and made into a private residence a decade ago, this simple sanctuary appears to have housed up to four different congregations, reflecting the changing demographics of the surrounding neighborhood through the 20th century.

Dingeldein Memorial Church of the Evangelical Association of North America was its earliest incarnation.

Dingeldein Memorial’s congregation drew from the German immigrants who had moved to this working- class tenement part of the Upper East Side in the late 19th century.

After the General Slocum disaster in 1904, much of New York’s Little Germany neighborhood (today’s East Village) dispersed to Yorkville, which became the city’s new Kleindeutschland. The church likely remained heavily German.

Change came in 1920. The Dingeldein Memorial Church congregation sold the little building to the New York City Baptist Mission, an organization with the goal of promoting “churches, missions, Sunday-schools, vacation schools, settlements, and other missionary and charitable work.”

It may have been the New York City Baptist Mission that renamed the church the Czechoslovak Baptist Church.

A Czech church on East 77th Street? It made perfect sense at the time.

In the early 1900s, the blocks in the far East 70s were ground zero for New York’s Czech population, with thousands of immigrants patronizing Czech businesses, entertainment spaces, and churches—only a few of which exist today. (Bohemian National Hall, on East 73rd Street since 1896, is a remnant of the neighborhood.)

In 1961, with the Czech population receding, the church decamped. The next occupant was the First Russian Baptist Church; this congregation may have been the one to paint the little house cream with brown trim (above, in a 2010 photo).

By that year, the First Russian Baptist Church’s days were over. A listing hit the market that included the church itself and a small building behind it, according to Curbed.com, which had already been renovated into a residence.

Together, both buildings sold for 2.1 million. The church-turned-house has a roof deck now, and the dwelling is stripped of any religious symbols or icons (like the cross on the roof, at left, and the wooden pews, top).

But this charming house still resembles a chapel, and its spiritual past can’t be entirely erased.

[Third image: New-York Tribune, 1920; fourth, fifth, and sixth images: Streeteasy.com]