Posts Tagged ‘New York in 1904’

Labor and pleasure at the Old Slip banana docks

July 30, 2018

Bananas are so ubiquitous in New York, it’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t fish a few coins from your pocket and buy one at a corner bodega or sidewalk fruit vendor.

But this exotic food was a luxury item after the Civil War, selling for the equivalent of two bucks. Each banana came peeled and sliced, as the shape of the fruit violated Victorian codes of decency, according to Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.

With New York one of the busiest port cities in the world, it wasn’t long before fruit companies began shipping mass quantities of bananas on ships arriving at the “banana docks” at the Old Slip piers near Wall Street.

Unloading bananas looked like hard work, according to these turn of the century images. But for small boys in the neighborhood, the banana docks presented opportunities.

“In the warm summer days it was great fun sliding under the dock while the men were unloading the boatloads of bananas from Central America,” wrote governor and presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith in his 1929 autobiography.

“An occasional overripe banana would drop from the green bunch being handed from one dock laborer to another, and the short space between the dock and the boat contained room enough for at least a dozen of us to dive after the banana.”

[Top photo: MCNY, 1906, X2011.34.4388; second photo: 1904 LOC]

The 1904 horse auction house in the East Village

June 30, 2016

Lets say you’re a Vanderbilt, a Belmont, or a Delano, or a member of one of New York’s other super rich families at the turn of the century.

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You have your mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, and for fancy dinners, only Delmonico’s will do. But when it come to transportation, polo, and racing, where do you get your horses and carriages?

The Van Tassell and Kearney Horse Auction Mart was one option.

13thstreethorsesmcny1910Formed as a general auction house in the 1870s, the company began specializing in show horses and fine carriages for the city’s elite, operating several equine auction buildings along East 13th Street.

With the era of the horse still in swing in 1903, Van Tassell and Kearney commissioned a new showroom and auction building at 126-128 East 13th Street.

After knocking down three row houses, the architects were tasked with creating a lovely structure roomy enough to show and stable horses but so elegant that it attracted the city’s wealthiest clientele.

The new building, completed in 1904, was an unusual beauty. “The central arched window is set within a wide coved band that widens and becomes more three-dimensional near the top,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Commission in its 2012 report deeming it a city landmark.

13thstreethorses

“Crowned by a prominent cartouche and keystone, this feature may have been influenced by the dramatic forms associated with the Art Nouveau style, or perhaps, the padded oval collars worn by horses.”

13thstreethorsesadThe horse auctions were short-lived. The building hosted its last one in 1916, a victim of the automobile age. The Vanderbilts and their brethren were now racing cars, not equines.

In subsequent years it housed a candy factory, a vocational school, and from 1978 to 2005 the studio of painter and sculptor Frank Stella, who cleaned and restored the facade.

Today it’s a dance center, I believe, and one of the last remaining buildings in New York intended for staging horse auctions, a necessity when horses powered the city.

[Second image: MCNY, 1910; fourth image: The Rider and Driver, 1893]

The uptown Museum Row no one knows about

May 22, 2014

It was a visionary idea around 1900: the construction of a majestic cultural complex in the wide-open, breezy space between Riverside Drive and Broadway at 155th Street.

AudubonterracesignAt the time, this area of Upper Manhattan, once part of the estate of artist James Audubon in the 1840s, was being developed into a residential neighborhood.

Builders were putting up apartment houses and flats in what they hoped would be a prime part of the city. Adding a beautiful museum row would enhance the area and give it cultural cache.

Audubonterrace1919mcny

So the Beaux Arts-style, granite and limestone structures were built, centered around a brick walkway and sunken courtyard and marked by a wrought-iron gate. Opened in 1904, this uptown museum row was called Audubon Terrace.

Hispanicmuseumpostcardmcny1925

The Hispanic Society of America, a museum with Goyas and El Grecos, moved in. So did the American Indian Museum, American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Geographical Society, and the American Numismatic Society.

Audubonrowelcid2This cultural crossroads attracted crowds, at least at first. The problem? As they say, location location location.

Upper Manhattan didn’t pan out as the well-to-do enclave developers had hoped. And it was far out of the loop of the main part of the city.

Decades passed. Three of the original tenants moved out. Only the Hispanic Society museum and the American Academy of Arts and Letters remain. Boricua College, a bilingual institution, has joined them.

Audubon Terrace today feels like a secret. The wide courtyard, ghostly equestrian statue of El Cid, and other monuments to art and culture are devoid of crowds.

Audubonterrace2

The art at the Hispanic Society is fantastic (and free!). It’s an ideal place for walking and looking and dreaming.

[Photos: Second photo, 1919, MCNY; third, 1925 postcard from MCNY]

The most beautiful ballroom in New York City

August 6, 2012

Today, the former Prince George Hotel, at 14 East 28th Street, is part of the nonprofit housing group Common Ground, providing low-income housing for about 400 once-homeless adults.

But when the hotel opened in 1904 (another building was added in 1912), it was a Beaux-Arts jewel reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s New York.

The luxurious rooms on each of its 14 floors came with private baths, and the ground floor featured several restaurant and lounge areas.

One of those lounges is now the Prince George Ballroom, a 4,800-foot space with ornately carved classical columns and ceiling murals inspired by the Renaissance.

Restored to its original beauty in the 1990s, it can be rented for parties and events.

Judging by how gorgeous it is now, it’s hard to imagine what it looked like in the 1980s.

That’s when the Prince George fell on hard times and became one of the city’s most crime-ridden welfare hotels, home to 1,600 people.

Like the rest of the building, the ballroom was a rundown eyesore, painted white and used as a dining hall, social service office, even a basketball court.

I wish I could find a photo of it during its welfare-hotel days. Until then, the one above, as it looks today, and this one below, from 1915, will have to suffice.

Photos: Common Ground

The wildly ornate lobby inside a budget hotel

December 6, 2010

From the outside, the Hotel Wolcott, at 4 East 31st Street, isn’t anything extraordinary.

Sure, this discount hotel has a lovely Beaux-Arts exterior, mostly obscured by scaffolding these days. But so do many other buildings nearby.

Still, if you head past the no-frills entrance and look up at the lobby ceiling . . . wow!

It’s a Louis XVI–style time machine, with an ornate high ceiling, mirrored panels, stained glass, marble pillars, and incredible chandeliers.

All this ornamentation reflects the Hotel Wolcott’s early days as a luxurious residence for the rich in Gilded Age New York.

Built in 1904, guests included Edith Wharton, and the hotel is frequently mentioned in society columns of the era.

It’s not everyone’s style, but the ceiling is incredibly preserved. A copy of the hotel’s brochure from 1904 is available on its website.