A forgotten artist and the city’s ‘terrible beauty’

February 8, 2021

Glenn O. Coleman’s career as a celebrated Gotham illustrator and painter was a short one. Born in Ohio in 1887, he grew up in Indiana and arrived in Manhattan in 1905 to attend the New York School of Art, studying under Robert Henri and Everett Shinn.

“Minetta Lane, Night” (not dated)

Coleman earned a name for himself in the 1910s and 1920s city art scene with “personal depictions of simple, struggling humanity,” as the Spellman Gallery put it.

His illustrations (some of which he made into lithographs) and paintings reflected the subject matter of his Ashcan teachers: Bowery bums, election night bonfires, slum kids, cops, criminals, “silk-hatted tourists,” bar stool sitters, and other denizens of Lower Manhattan’s pockets and corners, typically at night.

“Downtown Street,” 1926

In 1910, Henri said this about Coleman, who was exhibiting a series of drawings in New York called “Scenes From the Life of the People” that his hometown Indiana newspaper said had a “Hogarthian spirit”:

“This work of Coleman’s is no confection of art junk….It is the record of a certain life drama going on about us here in New York—one side, very grim—a side shunned by many, but one he has looked upon frankly with open eyes and has understood as the thinker with human sympathy understands.”

“Election Night Bonfire,” (not dated)

Coleman explained in 1910 that he never wants for material, and his art is inspired by his own personal vision of beauty. “Sometimes it is a mad beauty, sometimes a powerful and terrible beauty, sometimes a happy and refreshing beauty. I do not think one thing is more beautiful than another, that is, when I see each thing in its own place.”

A contributor to the socialist journal The Masses and part the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913, Coleman exhibited widely. But he never made big money off his art. “He gained first-hand acquaintance with the experience of the urban poor: often penniless, he frequently was forced to forgo painting in order to work menial jobs to support himself,” according to Fine Art Limited.

“Coenties Slip,” 1928

Poverty wasn’t Coleman’s only roadblock; his social realist art soon went out of fashion in favor of more abstract styles, which he at one point adapted to his work.

“In the mid-1920s, Coleman’s focus as a painter shifted away from the social environment of the city toward a preoccupation with such formal concerns as the geometry of its massive new architecture,” wrote Fine Arts Limited. “Just as his paintings assumed a more modernist style, however, he returned to his earliest sketches of the city as a basis for a series of more conventionally realistic lithographs that celebrate street life and the city’s ordinary inhabitants.”

“The Bowery,” 1928

At some point in the 1920s, he relocated to Long Beach on Long Island, continuing to paint “the grim comedy of a relentless city,” as one newspaper put it. His work won prizes and was acquired by museums like the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney.

“One Mile House,” 1928

Though he was well-known in his era, his death in 1932 at age 45 didn’t make it into many newspapers. Today, this artist who stayed true to his own muse and vision, who described New York as a city that “comes to me with a mysterious and powerfully absorbing attraction,” has mostly been forgotten.

In a 1910 magazine article, Coleman said: “My pictures may not be exactly like New York life really is—photographically speaking. Who really knows how New York life really is? I have my vision of it, my thoughts, my ideas of it….So these masks of men and women—these disguises of men and women, these curious shapes and forms, these shadows and masses of buildings are images always on my mind and out of these images my pictures are made because they are wonderfully absorbing to me, and because they have this terrible energy of New York life.”

“MacDougal Alley, 1928”

[First and second images: The Whitney Museum of Art; third image: TK; fourth image: TK; fifth image: Phillips Gallery; seventh image: The Whitney Museum of Art]

An ode to construction workers on a 57th Street Art Deco tower

February 8, 2021

There’s a lot to love about the Fuller Building, the Art Deco-Art Nouveau beauty built in 1929 that rises 40 stories over Madison Avenue and 57th Street.

A few favorites: the black granite facade on the lower floors, geometric designs at the top of the tower, and the medallions on the lobby floor showing various buildings constructed by the Fuller Company, an early developer of steel-skeleton skyscrapers. (These included the Flatiron Building, which was called the Fuller Building when it opened in 1902—but “flatiron” stuck because of the shape of the lot it was built on.)

Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of this iconic tower sits above the entrance: two idealized and shirtless construction workers flanking a clock while standing in front of a cityscape of skyscrapers.

The sculptures, by Elie Nadelman, seem to be an ode to the men who literally constructed the Fuller Building and other mighty towers that raised New York’s skyline higher toward the heavens in the early 20th century.

It makes sense. The Fuller Company was a construction company that depended on the strength and skill of men in the building trades. Without these workers and advancements in engineering, Manhattan would have remained a low-rise metropolis topping out at six or so stories.

A snowstorm on Broadway in the Theater District

February 1, 2021

Painter John Sloan, born in Philadelphia, moved to New York City in 1904. Throughout his life he depicted scenes of city residents doing everything from dreaming on rooftops to commuting on the elevated to hanging laundry to partying on Election night.

But “The White Way,” from 1927, is the first Sloan painting I’m aware of that shows the action and activity of Broadway’s Theater District, specifically at 53rd Street. It belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which states this about Sloan’s New York subjects and this work in particular:

“The bustling city streets and crowded tenements supplied the artist with stimulating new subject matter, as seen in this work, which depicts bundled-up pedestrians on a snowy evening at the corner of Broadway and Fifty-Third Street. Recalling the chilly evening in which he sketched this scene, Sloan later commented, “The realization of my surroundings had been frozen in my memory, but I feel that my suffering has been compensated for.”

A site called The Art Story has this comment: “The inspiration for this work was made from a sketch he actually drew in the freezing cold, capturing the atmosphere and energy of a spontaneous moment. While the subject of city life had been a recurring theme for Sloan, this later work celebrated the city as bright and dynamic, with less attention on the individual experience than his earlier Ashcan School paintings. The work is more observational in nature, rendered in a lighter palette and looser brushstrokes that gives it a more impressionistic feel. This represented a general shift in Sloan’s work; soon after this painting was finished, he would shift much of his attention to landscape paintings, portraits, and nudes.”

Central Park’s Mother Goose statue tells many stories

February 1, 2021

Most of Central Park’s wonderful statues tell just one story. The Mother Goose statue, at Rumsey Playfield on the East Drive near 72nd Street, tells many.

Amid the main granite carving of a woman flying on top of a goose—complete with a pointy hat, purse, cloak, buckled shoe, and one unhappy-looking cat riding the clouds—are five bas reliefs of the most beloved Mother Goose fables.

Humpty Dumpty (below), Old King Cole, Little Jack Horner, Mother Hubbard, and Mary and her little lamb are all represented in this whimsical statue dedicated in 1938, explains NYC Parks.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the artist behind these nursery rhyme characters is Frederick George Richard Roth, a city native. Hired in the 1930s as the chief sculptor of the New York City parks department, Roth is the creator behind many other enchanting animal sculptures in Central Park.

“Roth is responsible for a number of other sculptures in the Park as well, including Balto, the Sophie Loeb Fountain, Dancing Goat, and Honey Bear,” states the Central Park Conservatory. He also made the limestone reliefs of animals in and around the Central Park Zoo and Prospect Park Zoo, according to NYC Parks.

Also close to this kid-friendly part of the park are the Hans Christian Anderson and the Ugly Duckling statue and two Alice in Wonderlands, one at East Drive and 75th Street and the other inside Levin Playground (East Drive and 77th Street), the latter created by Roth in 1936.

The entrance to Rumsey Playfield (formerly Rumsey Playground, and before that the Central Park Casino) is just beyond the Mother Goose statue. There, two granite carvings of a boy and a girl bundled up in the cold—one astride a sled, the other on a bench—guard the entrance to the field.

Were these also done by Roth? I didn’t turn up anything about the sculptor, but they’re similarly whimsical and looking ready for this week’s weather.

The colonial city’s most romantic ‘kissing bridge’

February 1, 2021

Manhattan in the 1700s was mostly bucolic countryside, thick with woods and swamps and crossed by brooks outside the small downtown city center.

To get across these brooks, residents of the island’s villages and far-apart estates built small wooden bridges. Perhaps because some of these bridges were in secluded spots that inspired romance, at least three became known into the 19th century as “kissing bridges.”

On these bridges, couples could enjoy a little PDA…and they were encouraged by custom (or bound by tradition) to indulge in a little lip action.

“In the way there is a bridge, about three miles distant from the city, which you always pass over as you return, called the ‘Kissing-Bridge,’ where it is a part of the etiquette to salute the lady who has put herself under your protection,” wrote Rev. Andrew Burnaby of the UK, who visited New York in the summer of 1760.

One of these kissing bridges spanned Old Wreck Brook (you have to love these colonial-era names, right?) at today’s Park Row and now-defunct Roosevelt Street. Details about this kissing bridge have been hard to uncover, but it did inspire this 1920 poem.

Another kissing bridge occupied East 77th Street and Third Avenue, about four miles from the city on the edge of Jones Wood. It crossed the Sawkill River near Boston Post Road, according to the New York Times in 2006.

But the kissing bridge that inspired old New York memoirists (and appears to be the one Burnaby wrote about) is the bridge that spanned the Sawkill River (or Turtle Creek, according to one historian) at today’s Second Avenue and 50th or 52nd Street. This was on the farm owned by the DeVoor family, stated Charles Hemstreet in When Old New York Was Young.

“And at the crossing of the waterway and the roadway…there was a bridge over which the road led and under which the stream flowed,” wrote Hemstreet. “This was called the ‘Kissing Bridge’, and it was not the first bridge of the kind on the island, nor was it the last. Twice more on other places a road crossed a stream; and there, too, was a Kissing Bridge.”

The heyday of this kissing bridge was in the 1760s Hemstreet explained, and the name “was gotten from an old Danish custom, giving to any gentleman crossing such a bridge, not only the privilege, but the right of kissing the lady who chanced to be by his side.”

It’s unclear when this and the other two kissing bridges met their end. But the one in today’s Turtle Bay survived the longest. Valentine’s Manual published an illustration of the kissing bridge in 1860 titled “The Last of Kissing Bridge on the Old Boston Road, 50th & Second Ave.”

If only one of these bridges made it to the 21st century—what an appropriate place for New York couples to celebrate Valentine’s Day!

[Top image: The American Magazine, 1882; second and fourth images: NYPL; third and fifth images: Ballads of Old New York]

A 1904 eviction in a New York tenement district

January 25, 2021

Leave it to Everett Shinn, social realist Ashcan artist, to paint an eviction scene that gives viewers much more than just a portrait of a family thrown out of their tenement and onto the street.

In “Eviction (Lower East Side),” we see piles of rickety belongings, men carrying a trunk and what looks like a folded mattress down the building’s stairs. A crowd of onlookers—former neighbors?—watches the eviction, as does a cop, who appears to be standing guard, perhaps in case the crowd rushes to grab the family’s things.

It’s a ghastly scene of anonymous New Yorkers, one that’s part of the Smithsonian and can be seen via magnification here.

The nude statue outside Alice Vanderbilt’s window

January 25, 2021

In 1916, when the Pulitzer Fountain was completed at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, all of Grand Army Plaza dazzled.

Funded by New York World publisher Henry Pulitzer (who left 50K in his will to create it), the elegant fountain features stepped ornamental basins topped by a shell holding a bronze female figure in the center. The statue represents Pomona, the Greek goddess of abundance.

Like many allegorical female statues, Pomona doesn’t have a stitch on. Holding a basket of fruit, she’s in a slight crouching position, her front facing Central Park and her backside aimed at 58th Street.

And no one seemed to have a problem with that—except, supposedly, the very rich widow living out her days in a 137-room mansion that spanned 57th to 58th Street, and whose bedroom window had a direct view of Pomona’s nude butt.

This wasn’t just any wealthy widow. The mansion (below in 1908, behind the Plaza) was the home of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, aka Alice Vanderbilt. In the Gilded Age, the family- and charity-focused Alice was considered less ostentatious than her social-climbing sister-in-law, Alva Vanderbilt.

But in her day, Alice also had a full calendar of society events. This mother of seven even wore the best gown to Alva’s famous 1883 masquerade ball: an electric dress that actually lit up thanks to a portable battery pack (below).

Looking out your window and seeing a naked butt every day isn’t the worst thing. But as the story goes, it really bothered Alice.

“One is not surprised to learn that Alice Vanderbilt was indignant when the city fathers permitted the statue of the nude lady surmounting the fountain to present her backside to her bedroom,” wrote Louis Auchincloss in The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age.

In response, Alice reportedly had her bedroom moved across the mansion, so she wouldn’t be subjected to the buttocks of the naked goddess.

Alice would have been 71 when the statue began bubbling water, and she stayed in the mansion until the mid-1920s, eventually relocating to another, more manageable house at One East 67th Street.

In 1927, she sold her 58th Street mansion. A week before it was to be demolished later that year, she had the house opened to the public, “charging fifty cents’ admission to raise money for charity,” wrote Wayne Craven in Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society.

Bergdorf Goodman replaced Alice’s mansion, and the department store still occupies the site today…reportedly with no complaints from customers about Pomona’s butt.

[Third and fourth photos: Wikipedia]

Art Deco poetry on a 1929 East Side high-rise

January 25, 2021

You don’t see a lot of green glazed terra cotta on New York City high-rise facades. But then 240 East 79th Street isn’t just another residential building on the Upper East Side.

This “rather plain brick building” completed in 1929 features a showstopping Art Deco entrance, “completely faced in colored glazed terra-cotta squares, with glazed terra cotta surrounds for the windows and the main entrance,” noted Anthony Robins in his book New York Art Deco: A Guide to Gotham’s Jazz Age Architecture.

The building’s awning carries the address in a recognizable Art Deco typeface, as does the “No. 240 East 79 St” inscribed above the entrance.

Isn’t that eight-sided emblem amid all the green terra cotta unusual? Robins has this to say about it: “Above the inscription sits an octagonal piece of stone, set within a terra cotta frame and capped by a flowering form that curves out from the facade to hover protectively over it.”

“Frederick Godwin, the architect, was a great-grandson of American poet William Cullen Bryant—and his ornamental treatment here is quite poetic.”

A crowded workday street scene in the 1950 city

January 18, 2021

Benjamin Eistenstat was born in Philadelphia in 1915, and the few biographies I found about him suggest that he spent much of his artistic career in Pennsylvania.

But in 1950 he was in New York City—where he created this lithograph of a street scene in a very masculine Manhattan. Perhaps this view is of a truncated Grand Central Terminal/42nd Street and Park Avenue Viaduct?

See the image closeup here; with such rich details, it’s easy to get lost in it.

[1stdibs.com]

An 1887 example of apartment living in Yorkville

January 18, 2021

The Upper East Side’s Yorkville neighborhood is dense with brownstones, tenements, and high-rise residences.

But hiding in the middle of all that stone and glass is one of New York City’s first-ever apartment buildings—an 1887 red-brick dowager with a combined name that harkens back to the German immigrants who began populating Yorkville in the late 19th century.

This early residence containing individual apartments is actually two buildings at Second Avenue and 89th Street, according to Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts. (The official address: 1716 and 1720 Second Ave.) The name of the two: the Kaiser and the Rhine.

“The Romanesque Revival buildings were named to evoke German nobility, and appeal to Yorkville’s middle class German residents,” stated the Friends in a 2020 newsletter.

The name also served as an homage to the Rhinelanders, the old New York family who developed the apartments. The Rhinelander family bought land in Yorkville in the early 19th century, and generations later cashed in when the enclave lost its rural feel and filled with people during the Gilded Age.

1929 map of the block between Second and First Avenues and 89th and 90th Streets, with the Kaiser and the Rhine on the lower left.

Their calculated attempt to appeal to German immigrants was crucial to making the apartments a success. Prior to the early 20th century, apartment living was a hard sell. Any New Yorker who could resided in their own single-family house, and only the poor or working class dwelled in separate units under one roof.

But by branding them “French” or “Parisian” flats and hiring prominent architects to design spacious, stately units, apartment buildings slowly began to catch on.

The first, The Stuyvesant Apartments, was designed in 1870 by Richard Morris Hunt on 18th Street near Gramercy Park. By the 1880s, a French Gothic apartment building had gone up on East 17th Street. The Dakota on the West Side, The Osborne on 57th Street, and the spectacular Navarro Flats on 59th Street were also filling up with tenants.

The Kaiser and the Rhine boasted refined architectural touches like large arched windows and balconies (plus a shared courtyard behind the building), but compared to the bells and whistles of the Navarro Flats, these apartments are relatively low-key.

It was the Rhinelander family’s second French Flats building in Yorkville; the first was the Queen Anne-style Manhattan, which still exists on Second Avenue and 86th Street.

With 134 years on this corner (and one disastrous fire in 1904, where firemen were credited with saving 40 women and children from a “flat house fire”), the combined Kaiser and Rhine is still a rental and blends into the neighborhood.

Empty storefronts on the first floor provide something of a ghostly feel, and it’s easy to walk past these apartments without noticing some of the 19th century architectural touches. But behind its exterior just might be the kind of large, light, airy homes New Yorkers always dream of inhabiting.

[Fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]