What John Sloan saw on the night before Easter

April 18, 2022

Easter Sunday has just passed, so I wish I came across this painting earlier this week in time to write about it. But maybe it doesn’t matter, because through the eyes and Impressionist brush of John Sloan, this 1907 work is a timeless nocturne of a seemingly ordinary transaction.

We’re probably in Greenwich Village, where Sloan lived and worked. Easter lilies are laid out in front of a shop for passersby to inspect, pick through, and make their selection. These sidewalk shoppers are shrouded in darkness, practically obscured by the black umbrella one carries.

But as they touch the flowers, you can feel the softness of the petals and sense how bright they must have looked illuminated by the artificial light of the store window. The rain-slicked sidewalk and the warm light from the cafe next door makes it an even more potent, sensuous image of the simple act of purchasing flowers on a rainy spring night.

Two decades later, Sloan painted another scene of spring flowers and a wet sidewalk that is equally evocative.

Step Into the Morningside Heights rowdy resort district dubbed ‘Little Coney Island’

April 18, 2022

Since 1892, West 110th Street has also been known as Cathedral Parkway. It’s a heavenly name for a stretch of Manhattan that had a citywide reputation for vice and sin at the turn of the 20th century.

110th Street station on Ninth Avenue El, 1905

“Little Coney Island,” as this quickly developing enclave of Morningside Heights was dubbed by residents, police, and politicians, consisted of a few blocks of newly opened pleasure gardens set in wood-frame buildings that attracted carousing crowds of fun-seeking men and women.

A “pleasure garden” sounds pretty saucy, but it was simply a venue or “resort” where working class New Yorkers, often immigrants, went to drink, listen to popular ballads, watch vaudeville acts, and otherwise entertain themselves with the same kind of lowbrow attractions found on the Bowery or at Brooklyn’s Coney Island, minus the rides.

In a city of tight quarters and without air conditioning or paid vacations for working people, pleasure gardens were popular. Thanks to its breezy open roof and proximity to the Ninth Avenue El, one of the most frequented at Little Coney Island was the Lion Palace, spun off from the Lion Brewery on 110th Street and Broadway.

Little Coney Island’s dance halls and beer gardens existed in wood buildings like these

“While it’s unclear as to exactly when the Lion opened, by the end of the century the Palace had a summer roof garden and performers were regularly covered in newspaper entertainment listings,” wrote Pam Tice on the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group site in 2016. “It became a popular spot for the nearby Columbia men.”

Soon, saloons, music halls, and casinos sprang up, like Waldron’s Dance Hall at 216 West 110th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, per a 2021 piece by E.L. Danvers on I Love the Upper West Side. The Imperial Garden and Columbus Casino drew hundreds of revelers each night.

Berenice Abbott took this photo of a 110th Street wood house in 1938; it would have been in the center of Little Coney Island

Of course, such a concentration of “entertainment houses” also raised the hackles of neighborhood associations and social reformers. After a fire broke out at Philip Dietrich’s resort in March 1900—during a performance by an act called the Fowler Sisters, who sang the ballad, “Farewell, Love’s Dream Is O’er,”—the crackdown on Little Coney Island seemed inevitable.

First, liquor licenses were turned down. A year later, police raided Waldron’s and a dance hall owned by Herman Wacke on the grounds that it was illegal to dance on Sundays.

“The dance halls that remained open entertained only a few straggling patrons, and these were not allowed to dance,” wrote the New York Times on March 18, 1901. “The musicians sat listlessly around their instruments and watched the police as they sauntered through the rooms.”

A bill passed by the state prohibited the operation of a dance hall serving alcohol within half a mile of a church. The Riverside and Morningside Heights Association petitioned to get rid of Little Coney Island, saying the proprietors violated liquor tax laws and “brought a large number of the worst element of the city to the locality,” per a June 1900 Times writeup.

110th Street and 8th Avenue in 1898, up the street from Little Coney Island

In 1901, a judge deemed a series of law enforcement raids at Little Coney Island to be “police persecution.” But the end was near. Ultimately, Little Coney was a victim of real estate development.

“Here is a section which was notorious a few years ago as New York’s ‘Little Coney Island,'” stated a New York Times story from 1910 about the new apartment residences going up along 110th Street. “Both sides of 110th Street, between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, were lined with old wooden houses, groggeries, and summer beer gardens….”

“The cheap resorts managed to exist, however, until the natural order of things the builders saw that the land was better suited to towering edifices of stone and brick, and today but scant evidences remain of the former conditions.”

[Top image: Alamy; second image: Real Estate Record and Guide, 1911, via Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group; third image: MCNY 43.131.1.582; fourth image: New York Times; fifth image: NYPL]

Is this the skinniest row house in Murray Hill?

April 11, 2022

It’s not the skinniest house in all of Manhattan; that honor goes to this circa-1873 gabled beauty on Bedford Street, which clocks in at an itty-bitty nine and a half feet wide. (Famously, it was the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in the 1920s.)

But 164 East 37th Street just might be the skinniest row house in Murray Hill, a neighborhood with its fair share of slender brownstones and townhouses.

The backstory of this slender contender hasn’t been easy to dig up. Scouting New York took a look at it in 2011, determining that it measured 10 feet wide and served as the entrance and stairwell for the larger brick building on the corner.

I’m not so sure about that. First of all, the brick building has a different architectural style and likely was built in a different time period. Why wouldn’t the brick one have its own entrance and stairwell? Number 164 is also set back from the brick building; the two neighbors are not in harmony. On the other hand, the sloppy cornice matches, kind of.

Whatever the backstory, the house hasn’t really changed since at least 1940, when this tax photo was taken by the city. The doors look the same as today, but the more decorative entryway has vanished.

It’s hard not to be charmed by these narrow houses, even when they’re more shabby than shabby chic. A handful of them can be found on Manhattan side streets, hiding between more modern buildings—like this skinny row house at 19 West 46th Street, which does have an interesting history going back to 1865.

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

The story of the bride-to-be brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital after surviving the Titanic

April 11, 2022

The sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912 brought deep grief to New York City, the great ship’s intended destination. This incredible story of one third-class survivor made it into the city tabloids a week later, and it was something of a bright spot amid a terrible tragedy.

Sarah Roth (left) and Daniel Iles on their wedding day, April 1912

The passenger’s name was Sarah Roth. She was born in the 1880s in what is now Poland, but her family moved to London when she was young, and she worked as a seamstress. There she met Daniel Iles, and the two became sweethearts, then got engaged.

Wanting a better life for himself and his intended bride, Iles immigrated to New York City in 1911. He found work as a clerk at Greenhut, Siegel & Cooper, the colossal department store on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street (where Bed, Bath & Beyond is today) and rented a room at 321 West 24th Street.

A crowd at Pier 59 awaits the RMS Carpathia

The next year, he sent Roth passage money to come join him in Manhattan, and she bought a steerage ticket on the ill-fated Titanic. “Sarah managed to secure one of the last third-class tickets on the maiden voyage of White Star Line’s new flagship,” wrote The Guardian in a 2000 article.

On April 10, 1912, Roth boarded the liner with a wedding dress she made herself. Four days later, asleep in her cabin, she woke with the realization that the ship wasn’t moving, according to encyclopedia-titanica. She got out of bed and soon found herself among a glut of people in steerage, prevented by an officer from going to the deck.

St. Vincent’s Hospital’s Elizabeth Seton Building, where Titanic survivors were taken

Another officer who was smitten by her, according to a 2010 Daily News article, helped her get to one of the last lifeboats to leave the ship. Picked up by the RMS Carpathia after the Titanic went down, Roth arrived with fellow survivors at Pier 59 in Chelsea. Iles was waiting, hoping his fiancee would be among the survivors.

She was brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital along with more than 100 others in various states of health. Roth was suffering from “shock and exposure,” according to an Evening World article.

Titanic survivors recuperating at St. Vincent’s

“At St. Vincent’s, Roth and the others were welcomed by doctors and nurses who were the passionate opposite of the attitude manifested by those deadly class-dividing gates aboard ship,” wrote Michael Daly in the Daily News.

Roth told hospital staff about her engagement. “The hospital now saw an opportunity to bring some cheer amid tragedy,” stated Daly. “Iles was contacted at his room on W. 24th St. and declared himself ready. Father Grogan of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary was willing to officiate. A fellow Titanic survivor named Emily Radman agreed to be maid of honor. The Women’s Relief Committee provided a new trousseau and a bouquet.”

The headline in a front page Sun article, April 23, 1912

A week later in the hospital meeting hall, Roth and Iles tied the knot. Fellow Titanic survivors and other patients came to watch the ceremony. “Some of the sick who were able to leave their wards were put in wheel chairs and moved down the corridor so that they could enjoy the wedding. Perhaps 200 were in the crowd, and among those were black gowned Sisters of Charity, young physicians in white, and priests,” wrote The Sun.

Roth and Iles went on to have a son, and like other Titanic survivors, she disappeared into obscurity. She died in 1947, but a legacy of her trip—a Third Class menu card she kept in her purse the night the Titanic met its fate—went up for auction in 2000. The winning bid: $44,650, per Bonhams, which has reproduced the menu card here.

[Top image: NY Tribune via Encyclopedia-Titanica; second, third, and fourth images: LOC; fifth image: The Sun]

A midcentury printmaker celebrates machine age New York City

April 11, 2022

As the machine age took hold in the United States in the early 20th century, some artists took a darker view of the mechanization of urban society—seeing isolation and alienation amid skyscrapers, automobiles, and steel bridges. Painter and printmaker Louis Lozowick, however, found something to celebrate.

“Allen Street,” 1929

Lozowick isn’t a household name, but his backstory will sound familiar. Born in Ukraine in 1892, he immigrated to New York City in the early 1900s, according to Artnet. He took classes at the National Academy of Design, studying with Leon Kroll, a painter and lithographer who often depicted the industry of Manhattan from the city’s bridges and rivers.

“Through Brooklyn Bridge Cables,” 1938

After traveling in Europe, Lozowick returned to New York in 1926 and worked as an illustrator for the leftist social reform periodical, New Masses. Influenced by Bauhaus and precisionist artists, he was also producing his own photorealistic, sometimes Art Deco style works—many of which heralded “the power of men and machines,” as the National Gallery of Art put it.

“Backyards of Broadway,” 1926

Lozowick spoke about this theme in 1947. “From the innumerable choices which our complex and tradition-laden civilization presents to the artist, I have chosen one which seems to suit my training and temperament,” he said in a publication called 100 Contemporary American Jewish Painters and Sculptors (via the Metropolitan Museum of Art website).

“Third Avenue,” 1929

“I might characterize it thus: Industry harnessed by Man for the Benefit of Mankind,” he continued.

Rather than isolation or alienation, there’s a sense of optimism in Lozowick’s wondrous, finely drawn images. His urbanscapes of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, many of which feature Manhattan, are dynamic and active. Might and power seem to be in the air.

“Slum Clearance,” 1939

Lozowick gives us a majestic city from soaring vantage points—the Brooklyn Bridge and the Third Avenue El—as well as forgotten pockets and corners under elevated tracks and along Manhattan’s industrial edges, where the new and old New York sometimes collide.

Though his focus is on how machines transformed the look and feel of the city, Lozowick doesn’t lose sight of the humanity driving the trucks and trains, powering the factories, and building the skyscrapers.

“57th Street,” 1929

“Following the advent of the Great Depression, Lozowick increasingly incorporated figures of laborers into his compositions—focusing less on the utopic promise of the machine and more on its impact on and relationship to the worker,” stated Emma Acker in a writeup about Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, a 2018 exhibit in San Francisco and Dallas that included Lozowick’s work.

“Traffic,” 1930

Of all the images in this post, only “Third Avenue” includes no human form. But humanity is there; someone is at the controls of the train.

Finding the servant call buttons in New York City’s Gilded Age mansions

April 4, 2022

Next time you’re in one of the city’s former Gilded Age mansions—reborn as a museum, perhaps, or a cultural center, store, or some other public building—be on the lookout for tiny buttons.

Sure you’ll want to gaze in amazement at the mansion’s elaborate interiors, with their lovely detailing, mahogany wood staircases, and splendorous ceiling murals.

But while you marvel at the beauty of it all, you might notice one of the purely functional servant call buttons that discreetly summoned the hired household help who allowed wealthy families to live so well.

The servant call buttons above come from the Gothic mansion on Fifth Avenue and 79th Street. Once known as the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion, it’s now home to the Ukrainian Institute. Several servant buttons can be found around the interior, sometimes chipped or partly painted over.

Frick mansion, 1919

This servant buttons below were found at the Frick Collection, now a magnificent art museum but once steel magnate Henry Clay Frick’s palazzo-like mansion at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. The Frick family had 27 servants living on the third floor of his mansion, according to the Frick Collection website, and I imagine these buttons were pressed often.

Butler, pantry, housekeeper—I can’t quite make out the rest. The buttons came from the museum’s West Gallery. And no, none of the buttons meant to summon servants worked!

[Third image: MCNY 1919 X2010.28.828]

How an East Village alley was renamed for a Ukrainian poet hero

April 4, 2022

From the city’s earliest days, streets were named after local bigwigs, typically a landowner. So in 1830, when it came time to name the one-block alley between today’s East Sixth and Seventh Streets (part of an early 18th century enclave called Bowery Village), the tradition continued.

The little slip between Third and Second Avenues became Hall Street, after Harlem landowner Charles Henry Hall, who sold the property to the city in 1828, according to a New York Times piece by Michael Goldman from 1999.

Hall Street didn’t always make it onto 19th century street maps, and it was changed in 1855 to Hall Place for unknown reasons. For 148 years, as Bowery Village morphed into the Lower East Side and then broke off to become the East Village, the Hall name stuck.

Hall Street, between Seventh Street and Tompkins Market on an 1840 map

Then in 1978, Charles Henry Hall was replaced by Taras Shevchenko, and the street officially bore the name Taras Shevchenko Place. Who is Taras Shevchenko, and what prompted the name change?

Hall Place made it on the map in 1903

“Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) was a Ukrainian writer, painter and political activist whose novels and poems, written in Ukrainian, gave forceful expression to his countrymen’s nationalist sentiment at a time when aspects of the culture, including the language, were being suppressed by the Russian czar,” Goldman wrote.

Taras Shevchenko in 1859

Considered a hero to many Ukrainians, the name change was pushed by the Ukrainian immigrants who settled around East Seventh Street after World War II and built a community dubbed “Little Ukraine” that topped 60,000 people in the years following the war, according to Village Preservation.

The site of Tomkins Market in its Hall Street days, Taras Shevchenko Place ends at McSorley’s to the north and borders St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church on one side.

It also borders a newish Cooper Union building. Back in 2001 as plans for the new building unfolded, Cooper Union wanted to “demap” Taras Shevchenko Place and create a pedestrian walkway. Thanks to community pushback, that never happened.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Wikipedia]

A colorful mural across a tenement wall honors the immigrants who built Yorkville

April 4, 2022

Save for a few restaurants in the upper East 80s and some cultural and historic organizations, the German presence in Yorkville—Manhattan’s last “Kleindeutschland“—has almost entirely vanished.

German bakeries and bars no longer line the streets, German language newspapers aren’t readily available at newsstands, and the smell of beer wafting from local breweries vanished after the last brewer closed its doors in 1965, according to an AMNY article from 2018.

But one tenement on York Avenue continues to pay homage to the German immigrants and their descendants who made East 86th Street a hub of culture and energy through much of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The five-story tenement, on the corner of York and 83rd Street, appears similar to the hundreds of other low-rise walkups lining the streets from Third Avenue to the East River north of 79th Street.

But look closely: one side is painted with a series of whimsical images of a clock, NYPD officers, gargoyles, a sewing machine, cartoonish faces, and gothic arched entrances.

Called Glockenspiel, the building-wide mural is the work of artist Richard Haas. Its origins date back to 2005, when a towering new luxury condo building across 83rd Street called the Cielo opened its doors. Apparently, new residents of the 28-story Cielo weren’t too happy about the shabby tenement view from the lobby.

“The refined atmosphere of the building was marred by its neighbor: a graffiti-covered tenement,” wrote Glenn Palmer-Smith in his book, Murals of New York City. To class up the corner, the developers of the Cielo asked the owner of the tenement if they could have a mural painted on the facade “to give the illusion that the neighborhood was upscale enough to justify the price of the apartments.”

The owner agreed, and Haas painted the mural “as a tribute to the Germanic history of the Yorkville neighborhood,” wrote Palmer-Smith. “He painted a side of the building rich in architectural detail, such as a three-story bay window and a clock with painted ‘moveable’ mechanical figures which, reflecting the city theme, are two New York City mounted policemen.”

Some of the images are a bit of a mystery. The sewing machine and dress form could represent industry, or perhaps the sense of home and family found in Yorkville. The gargoyles are similar to some of the gargoyles found on tenements like this one.

One of the painted images has the exaggerated face of a man grinding a mortar and pestle, suggesting a local druggist or medicine. Two hooded figures blowing horns might be referencing the rich tradition of German music halls and singing societies. The painted windows with a closetful of suits and a stairway are harder to decipher.

The tribute as a whole seems to tell the story of the neighborhood as it was a century or so ago: rich with the touchstones of an immigrant culture that has departed from the protective and insular world Yorkville once provided.

A painter captures humanity amid the dirt and darkness of a New York alley

March 28, 2022

Canada-born Impressionist artist Ernest Lawson made his name at the turn of the 20th century as a landscape painter—often depicting the still-rural Washington Heights neighborhood where he lived from roughly 1898 to 1908.

Yet when he turned his eye to the grit of city streets, he captured something equally evocative.

The 1910 painting he called “New York Street Scene” reveals the dirt and darkness of a narrow lane or alley, the discolored backs of buildings made uglier by the fire escapes hanging off them.

But we also see horse-pulled carts, vendor stalls, and vague figures on the sidewalk on the left—bits and pieces of humanity in the hidden pockets of the urban, industrial city.

[Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]

A rich Gilded Age ‘man of mystery’ builds Murray Hill’s most flamboyant mansion

March 28, 2022

Most of the opulent mansions that lined the avenues of Murray Hill in the late 19th century have been demolished, and the spaciousness and quiet formality of what used to be an entirely residential neighborhood has largely disappeared.

But in the early decades of the Gilded Age, the east side blocks between Madison Square and 40th Street comprised the most elite enclave in the city. Mrs. Astor’s brownstone mansion commanded respect on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue; her brother-in-law lived in a similar house next door.

Department store magnate A.T. Stewart built his French Empire fortress across the intersection, and J.P. Morgan lived in a more restrained mansion at Madison Avenue and 36th Street.

By the turn of the century, however, most of the Gilded Age rich decamped for Upper Fifth Avenue; Murray Hill was thought of as staid, even a little shabby as commercial enterprises crept in.

Captain De Lamar’s mansion soon after completion

So it raised eyebrows when, in 1902, Joseph Raphael De Lamar—who made millions in gold mining and then millions more on Wall Street—chose the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 37th Street as the site for the breathtaking Beaux-Arts mansion he built for himself and his young daughter.

Joseph Raphael De Lamar, undated photo

De Lamar was rich, but he was an outsider when it came to Gilded Age society. Born in Amsterdam, he supposedly stowed away on a ship as a child and spent years as a sailor, visiting ports around the world, according to his 1918 obituary in the New York Times.

After settling in Martha’s Vineyard, the Captain, as he was called, moved out West. There, he made his mining fortune, tried politics in Idaho, and then set his sights on New York City.

The De Lamar Mansion in 1925

On Wall Street, he was known as “the man of mystery.” Wrote the Times: “His intimate friends said that he never talked much,” but was “uniformly successful in his transactions.”

De Lamar was socially ambitious as well. In the 1890s he wed Nellie Sands, the daughter of a prosperous New York druggist. Despite their wealth, “the Lamars never became a part of the inner circle of society,” wrote Wayne Craven in his book, Gilded Mansions: Grand Architecture and High Society. After having a daughter, Alice, the family subsequently spent a few years in Paris. “Wealthy Americans who were shunned by society often tried their luck in European capitals,” stated Craven.

The marriage ended in divorce. After De Lamar returned to Manhattan with Alice, he hired Charles P. H. Gilbert, the architect behind some of the best-known Gilded Age mansions, to construct his as well. De Lamar gave Gilbert “a free hand so far as the dwelling itself [was] concerned,” wrote the New York Times in 1904, via Gilded Mansions.

De Lamar may have chosen the Madison Avenue and 37th Street site for a specific reason: to spite J. P. Morgan, who resided a block away and “had regularly rebuffed [Lamar] in business,” according to Leanne Italie in a recent Associated Press article.

The Parisian-style mansion, completed in 1905, didn’t reflect Gilbert’s usual French Gothic style. But physically and stylistically, it overshadowed Morgan’s dwelling—thanks in part to the rusticated stone, copper crests, recessed entrance, and roof. “The subtly asymmetrical house, with an entrance that is flanked by marble columns and crowned by a pair of putti, is surmounted by an exceptionally imposing mansard,” wrote The Guide to New York Landmarks.

That spectacular mansard was dubbed “the most formidable mansard roof in New York,” by the AIA Guide to New York City.

De Lamar added another impressive feature to his mansion: a sidewalk-level car elevator. “At the far right edge of the property, a large metal plate flush with the sidewalk is actually the roof of his automobile elevator, which goes down to the basement,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2008. (The outline of the metal plate is barely visible now under a new stairway.)

For the next 13 years, De Lamar and Alice lived in the eye-popping mansion; the 1910 census recorded the two living with nine servants, stated Gray. Society may not have accepted him, however, and Alice seemed to shy away from the display of wealth. Even so, when De Lamar died in 1918 at Roosevelt Hospital, he left part of his fortune of $29 million to his daughter, who was now 23 years old.

The mansion in 1975

“Alice De Lamar soon deserted her father’s house for a Park Avenue apartment, and went on to become a volunteer driver and mechanic for the Red Cross and an advocate of housing for working women,” wrote Gray. This “bachelor girl,” as 1920s and 1930s gossip columnists dubbed her, spent time in her homes in Palm Beach, Connecticut, and Paris. She was a quiet supporter of the arts until her death in 1983.

And the mansion? It was bought by the American Bible Society, and then became the headquarters of the National Democratic Club in the 1920s.

In the 1970s, De Lamar’s Beaux-Arts gem was purchased by the Polish government, which made it the site of its Consulate General. The interiors are rumored to be as lovely as the facade. Keep an eye out for events that might be open to the public.

[Third image: MCNY MNY233642; fourth image: Wikipedia; fifth image: NYPL; ninth image: MCNY 2013.3.1.852]