Posts Tagged ‘New York in 1911’

A Beekman bath house for the “great unwashed”

July 2, 2018

A century ago, during a heat wave like the one New York is sweltering under right now, this building on East 54th Street would probably have been packed with people—with a line weaving through its four Doric columns.

This was the 54th Street bathhouse, one of 13 public baths the city opened after a state law passed in 1895 mandating free public bathhouses in large cities, according to a 2011 Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) report.

It shares some details with the other public bathhouses that still exist in the city. See the dolphins and Poseidon’s trident decorating the columns.

Then there’s the stately, grand entrance. This was an era when public buildings were emblems of the city.

Entryways were designed to welcome residents—even the hundreds of thousands who lived in primitive tenements without bathing facilities and were part of what Mayor William Strong called “the great unwashed.”

That may have been an apt description for the residents of East 54th Street between First and Second Avenues. When the bath opened in 1911, this was a mostly Irish district of factory workers, laborers, and men who did the hard work at the many breweries in the area.

In its short heyday, the 54th Street Baths offered 79 showers for men and 59 for women; they were free to use, but bathers had to bring their own towel and soap.

The building also featured a gym, running track, and a rooftop playground—note the curves at the rooftop.

“In its first year of operation the building served more than 130,000 men and women; that number more than doubled the next year,” states the LPC report.

“Each patron, depending on their gender, entered the bathing facility through separate entrances that led to a waiting room.

A central office provided the only means of access between the waiting rooms, thus ensuring that men and women did not interact once they entered the bath house.” (Interior showers, at left)

By 1920, things had changed. Tenements were increasingly outfitted with showers and bathrooms, according to the LPC.

The neighborhood became fashionable as well, with nearby Sutton Place and Beekman Place turned into enclaves for the rich.

The baths closed in the 1930s and the building was revamped into a community recreation center, as it is to this day.

A witness paints the tragic Triangle shirtwaist fire

March 7, 2016

Before he became a noted painter in the mid-1940s, Vincent Joseph Gatto was just another kid growing up in Little Italy.

He lived with his widowed stepmother and made ends meet as a plumber’s helper, a milk-can washer, steamfitter, and a featherweight club fighter.

Victorjosephgattotrianglefire

Looking for extra cash, he decided to show some of his paintings at the annual Greenwich Village Art Show, thinking his unschooled artistic efforts were better than what he saw on display along the sidewalks.

He quickly found fame and gallery representation for the works he painted from “outa my head,” he told Life in 1948.

VincentjosephgattoOne of those from-memory paintings focused on the Triangle shirtwaist fire. On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, Gatto (left), then 18, witnessed the terrible inferno on Washington Place and Greene Street.

Thirty-three years later, he recalled what he saw: the intense smoke and fire, helpless crowds, and the shrouded bodies of workers who jumped or fell to death being laid out on the sidewalk by firefighters.

The painting is part of the Museum of the City of New York’s Activist New York exhibit.

[Photo: Smithsonian Institute/Renwick Gallery]

What became of the Triangle factory owners?

March 23, 2015

The names Isaac Harris and Max Blanck probably don’t resonate with New Yorkers today.

Yet 114 years ago, everyone knew them: Harris and Blanck (below) owned the Triangle Waist Company on Greene Street, where a devastating fire killed 146 employees on March 25, 1911.

Blanckandharris

From that horrific tragedy rose a stronger workers’ rights movement and new city laws mandating safer workplaces.

But what happened to Harris and Blanck, both of whom were in the company’s 10th floor offices that warm Saturday afternoon and managed to survive the fire unscathed?

Like many of their “operators,” as the girls who worked the rows of sewing machines were known, they were Jewish immigrants.

BlanckandharrissoloBoth started as workers in the growing garment industry in the 1890s and then became business owners, making a fortune manufacturing ladies blouses and earning the nickname the Shirtwaist Kings.

They certainly were easy targets to blame, and both men were indicted on first and second degree manslaughter charges, thanks to evidence uncovered by detectives that a door on the 9th floor leading to a fire exit had been locked, a violation of law.

Protected by guards and represented by a big-name lawyer at their December 1911 trial, Harris and Blanck each took the stand, countering the testimony of surviving workers who claimed that the door was always locked to prevent theft.

BlanckandharrisfightingfireOn December 27, they were acquitted. “Isaac Harris and Max Blanck dropped limply into their chairs as their wives began quietly sobbing behind them,” wrote David Von Drehle in Triangle.

To avoid an angry mob of family members outside the courthouse demanding justice, the two men were smuggled through a side exit away from their waiting limousines. They went into the subway instead.

Immediately they relaunched the Triangle company on Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.

But their names made headlines again. “All of their revenue went into paying off their celebrity lawyer, and they were sued in early 1912 over their inability to pay a $206 water bill,” states PBS.org.

Blanckandharrisfactoryafterfire

“Despite these struggles, the two men ultimately collected a large chunk of insurance money—$60,000 more than the fire had actually cost them in damages. Harris and Blanck had made a profit from the fire of $400 per victim.”

In 1913, at a new factory on 23rd Street, Blanck paid a $25 fine for locking a door during working hours, and he was warned during an inspection that factory was rife with fire hazards.

Blanckandharris9thfloorafterfireA year later, the two were caught sewing fraudulent labels into their shirtwaists that claimed the clothes had been made under sound conditions.

By 1918, after agreeing to pay $75 per deceased employee to families that had brought civil suits against them, they threw in the towel and disbanded the company.

[Photos 1-3: Kheel Center, Cornell University; 4-5: Brown Brothers]

The brothel above an 1880s Gramercy saloon

August 15, 2014

There’s a wonderful bar and restaurant near Third Avenue on 23rd Street.

The wood and glass entrance is lit by amber lanterns; chandeliers inside cast a glow onto the tin ceiling. Everything about the bar radiates that enchanting, old New York feel.

Klubesrestaurantfacade

Now it’s known as the Globe. Not too long ago, it was the Grand Saloon. Reportedly it’s been a food and drinking establishment since the 1880s.

KlubesrestaurantchandelierClearly it’s been called many things over the years. Yet the name it had at least a century ago still emerges like a ghost above the entrance: Klube’s Restaurant.

Who was Klube? Sometime before 1912, a German immigrant named Charles (or Carl) Klube bought the place with a partner named Klinger.

Klube and his wife operated the restaurant as part of hotel, which occupied the top three floors of the building.

The hotel, called the St. Blaise, wasn’t just your standard neighborhood lodging house—it was actually a 15-bedroom brothel.

City of Eros, by Timothy J. Gilfoyle, references it in a passage on Manhattan’s various East Side houses of assignation.

Klubescloseup “More modest hotels like the Delevan, the German Hotel, and the St. Blaise were subdivided row houses that resembled parlor houses from the outside,” wrote Gilfoyle.

“They had between 15 and 50 rooms that were used by prostitutes who frequented the hotels and nearby saloons.”

At some point, the St. Blaise name faded away, and Klube established Klube’s Steak House here. It went out of business in 1965, but in 1950, The New York Times described it as a “homey little German restaurant.”

No word about what happened to the brothel above.

Bellboy murders guest at the Iroquois Hotel

August 7, 2010

It was a senseless slaying that holds a place in crime history: The teen convicted of it ended up as the longest serving U.S. prisoner who eventually was released.

On July 26, 1911, Paul Geidel, a slight kid raised partly in orphanages, was a 17-year-old bellboy at the Iroquois Hotel on 44th Street off Fifth Avenue.

He decided to rob and kill a wealthy financier, William H. Jackson, who lived at the Iroquois. Jackson was old and deaf and didn’t hear Geidel creep into his apartment around 8:45 p.m.

Geidel suffocated Jackson with chloroform rag, then made off with a small amount of money and a few items.

It didn’t take long for the NYPD to consider him a suspect. Charged with second-degree murder, Geidel was sentenced to 20 years in Sing Sing.

Found insane in 1926 as he was nearing release, Geidel was moved to an upstate hospital for the criminally insane.

In 1980 he finally left the prison hospital a free man, having served 68 years. He died seven years later.