Posts Tagged ‘New York in 1909’

The faded cornerstone of the old police building

September 17, 2018

At the turn of the last century, when the newly consolidated New York needed a bigger, more modern police headquarters, city officials pulled out all the stops to build something glorious.

The result was a Beaux Arts beauty dominating slender Centre Street in what used to be Little Italy: a granite central pavilion and Corinthian columns topped by a gilded dome and an allegorical statue representing the five boroughs.

Completed in 1909, the new building was designed to “impress both officer and prisoner…with the majesty of the law,” according to a 1978 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The NYPD moved out of 240 Centre Street into newer, much uglier headquarters in the 1970s. But if you walked by the former police building today, you’d probably have no idea of its history.

Since 1988, 240 Centre Street has been a luxury condo, and it seems as if the developers did everything possible to erase anything relating to the police department on the facade.

Only the cornerstone, unveiled in May 1905 by Mayor George McClellan in a grand ceremony that featured a police band and mounted troops, provides a faded, chipped-away clue to the building’s former use.

[Second photo: Streeteasy]

Why city monuments blazed with light in 1909

July 25, 2016

HudsonfultonwashsquarearchImagine New York’s most iconic monuments—the Washington Square Arch, City Hall, the East River bridges—illuminated all at once in a dazzling nighttime spectacle of electric light.

That’s exactly what happened in autumn 1909, when the city threw an incredible celebration to honor two men who helped shape the metropolis as we know it today.

The Hudson-Fulton Celebration tipped its hat to the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river that now carries his name.

It also honored Robert Fulton’s journey up the Hudson River on his steamboat. (This actually took place in 1807, but no matter.)

Hudson’s reputation, like that of many famous men from the age of exploration, has taking a beating of late. But their achievements were key in opening up settlement and trade in North America and cementing New York as a capital of commerce.


With all this in mind, city officials and titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan decided to throw a two-week fiesta from September 25 to October 11, 1909.

Traditional festivities were planned: parades, speeches, a naval flotilla, fireworks, and a historical pageant that went from West 110th Street to Washington Square.


More over-the-top ways to celebrate thrilled the city. A 63-foot replica of the Half Moon, Hudson’s ship, was launched in the Netherlands and sailed to the city. Wilbur Wright flew his plane over the Hudson River, from Governors Island to Grant’s Tomb.

And electric light, which had recently transformed the city into a modern 24-hour metropolis of streetlights, marquees, and incandescent bulbs, illuminated many city monuments and buildings.


“Decorative illumination will be carried further in the Hudson-Fulton Celebration than ever before in a public festival,” wrote the New York Times on September 21.


“Incandescent bulbs by the million will decorate the big bridges and the public buildings throughout the greater city, while many of the tall commercial buildings will be brilliantly illuminated.”

HudsonfultoncardFor the naval flotilla, “the long line of warships will be outlined in flame, while the culminating point of brilliance will be reached Saturday night, Oct. 9., when beacon fires will burn on every hilltop and in many other available places from the Narrows from the head of navigation on the Hudson.”

To my knowledge, New York has never illuminated itself  quite the same way since.

[Images: Museum of the City of New York]

The majestic sheep heads of East 13th Street

November 7, 2011

Lots of New York buildings are adorned with animals: horses, squirrels, even elephants.

But you don’t see a lot of sheep—except for the two bighorn sheep heads on the facade of a handsome 12-story limestone building at 114 East 13th Street.

The building was converted into a pricey co-op in 1984. Luckily the sheep heads remain; they provide a clue as to who the original tenant was.

The company that used to occupy the building, the American Felt Company, “made felt used in pianos,” states

It’s fascinating how many former factories and manufacturing buildings paid homage to the animals who helped fill their coffers—like the beaver and squirrel of West 29th Street and the silkworm clock on Park Avenue South.

The unsolved Chinatown trunk murder of 1909

October 10, 2011

In June 1909, 19-year-old Elsie Sigel’s well-to-do Bronx family thought she had gone to visit her grandmother in Washington DC.

Instead, she had been murdered—her decaying body stuffed in a trunk with a rope around her neck in an apartment at 782 Eighth Avenue.

Police at the scene quickly figured out Elsie’s identity based on the 35 or so desperate love letters strewn across the apartment floor.

They were addressed to the man who lived there, Chinese immigrant Leon Ling, who had apparently fled New York days earlier.

Investigators quickly pieced the story together: Sigel (granddaughter of Civil War hero Gen. Franz Sigel) did mission work in Chinatown, part of an effort to convert immigrants to Christianity.

There she met Ling, a dapper ladies’ man, as well as another Chinese immigrant. She became involved romantically with both of them.

When Ling found out about the other man, police theorized he killed Sigel in a rage.

The murder of a young white woman by a Chinese man made huge headlines in all the New York papers—especially since the supposed murderer had vanished.

Theories were proposed: Ling fled back to China. The couple ran off together and put another girl’s body in the trunk to throw off cops. Sigel killed herself, and Ling was smuggled out of the city by other Chinese.

Whatever the real story, the case remains officially unsolved 102 years later.

[Top right illustration from the New York Daily News; bottom left, the Mott Street mission where Sigel met her supposed killer]

The breadline of hungry men in Freeman Alley

February 22, 2011

This narrow little passage off Rivington Street between Chrystie Street and the Bowery now attracts well-heeled, hipster New Yorkers looking for a table at retro Freemans restaurant, at the end of the alley.

But in 1909, there was a different kind of clientele in Freeman Alley craving a meal—desperate men on a breadline.

The breadline stemmed from the Bowery Mission, which had just relocated to nearby 227 Bowery. That building, a former coffin factory, was remodeled so its rear entrance opened to the back of Freeman Alley. Apparently the alley’s end wasn’t closed at the time.

That’s where Bowery Mission planners wanted the breadline to form. So night after night, men queued up in Freeman Alley, hoping for some food.

Freeman Alley is a bit of a mystery. No one is sure if it honors early 19th century surveyor Uzal Freeman, or if the name refers to the Second African Burial Ground, a cemetery for black New Yorkers on the site of Sara Roosevelt Park that was closed in 1853.

[NYPL Digital Gallery photo of the Bowery Mission Breadline]

“Panorama from the Produce Exchange”

June 18, 2010

There’s something poetic about the phrase on this postcard. It matches the expansive, enchanting depiction of New York Harbor, with all those little boats bobbing toward Staten Island.

The postmark on the back reads 1909.

The Produce Exchange was a Victorian building with a tower at 2 Broadway from 1884 to the 1950s. It was replaced by a skyscraper.