Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1920s’

What Tudor City tells us about an older East Side

January 2, 2017

When ground broke for Tudor City in the 1920s, the idea was to create a modern and pretty mini-city at the foot of a rocky projection at 42nd Street known in Revolutionary War times as Prospect Hill.

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But before they could build apartment towers and gardens, the developers had to do something about the unsavory occupants of this far East Side neighborhood—a former 19th century gang hideout called Corcoran’s Roost (also known as Dutch Hill) and even then a major Manhattan industrial zone.

tudorcityad“The view of even 75 years ago is no more,” stated the New York Times in a 1926 article about Tudor City and the area’s history. “Swaying tree tops made way for factory roofs with their black smoking chimneys.”

“Seventy feet below the crest of the hill, running parallel with the river and lying directly under the overhanging cliff, is First Avenue with its lumber and coal yards, its slaughter and packing houses, its poor dwelling places, and with the great Edison power plant occupying four blocks of the waterfront.”

By the time the first apartment houses of a scaled-down Tudor City opened—with all the decorative bells and whistles of the English Tudor era, which was fashionable at the time—developers had bulldozed blocks of rowhouse slums.

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But there wasn’t much they could do immediately about the factories and power plant along the river below.

The solution? Construct attractive apartment towers that turn their backs on the waterfront, literally.

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Only very small apartment windows in Tudor City’s residential buildings open onto the East River. This way, the well-heeled residents wouldn’t be put off by the noise and stench of industry.

[Top photo: MCNY, 1935, X2010.7.2.6334; third photo: unknown]

New York inspired this 1930s masterpiece mural

October 17, 2016

Biographies of painter Thomas Hart Benton usually describe him as a Regionalist, an art-world misfit who eschewed the Abstract style of the 1920s and 1930s and painted images of everyday life in the American heartland.

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But Benton did live in New York in the teens and 1920s, and he drew partly on his experiences in the city when he created his 1931 mural masterpiece, “America Today.”

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Asked by the New School to paint a mural for the boardroom of the college’s new building at 66 West 12th Street, Hart produced a 10-panel monument to American life—depicting the rise of industrialization and technology as well as the harvesting of cotton and wheat, along with allusions to societal inequality and hardship.

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[Above, Madison Square Park by Thomas Hart Benton (1924), not part of the mural]

Two panels in particular were inspired by New York. “City Activities with Subway” (top image) shows the energetic street life at the time: burlesque shows, sidewalk preachers, tabloid newspapers, and subway riders looking in every direction except at one another.

bentonportrait1935“City Activities With Dance Hall” (second image) captures the rush of big business, going to the theater, drinking at a bar (Prohibition was still in effect), and letting loose by dancing.

In a 2014 Smithsonian article about “America Today,” Paul Theroux quoted Benton. “’Every detail of every picture is a thing I myself have seen and known. Every head is a real person drawn from life.’”

Taken down by the New School (who reportedly paid Benton in tempura paint, not money) in the 1980s, Benton’s masterpiece moved to the lobby of 1290 Sixth Avenue. It’s now part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[Above: Thomas Hart Benton, 1935]

A curious detective agency sign on Ninth Street

August 22, 2016

Appearing on the facade of Randall House, an apartment building at 63 East Ninth Street, is this very noir-ish and mysterious sign.

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It’s for the William J. Burns Detective Agency. Who was William J. Burns? Known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” Burns started out as a Secret Service Agent and then became head of the FBI in the 1920s before founding his own detective agency.

“His exploits made national news, the gossip columns of New York newspapers, and the pages of detective magazines, in which he published ‘true’ crime stories based on his exploits,” states the FBI website.

It’s still a mystery why this sign is on Randall House—an otherwise ordinary residential building in Greenwich Village. As far as I know, it’s the only sign of its kind in New York City.

The artists and writers of 1920s St. Luke’s Place

July 28, 2016

In a neighborhood known for its charming brownstone-lined streets, St. Luke’s Place in the West Village stands out as exceptionally magical.

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Built in the early 1850s opposite a sprawling cemetery owned by Trinity Church, the 15 rowhouses span the north side of this slightly curved lane—which is actually Leroy Street, rechristened between Seventh Avenue and Hudson Street to give the block cachet.

Stlukesplace5and6mcnyStlukespaulcadmusThe first owners of these impressive homes, with their roomy parlors and grand entrances, were wealthy merchants.

By the 1910s and 1920s, like so much else in the Village, many were carved into flats and taken over by painters and writers. These newcomers gave St. Luke’s Place its literary and artistic reputation.

The roster of one-time residents features some diverse talent. Painter Paul Cadmus (above) lived at 5 St. Luke’s Place (left, with number 6 in 1939).

Number 11 (below in 1900, with 12 and 13) was home to Max Eastman, poet and publisher of the anarchist periodical The Masses.

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Sherwood Anderson resided in a one-room basement flat at number 12. Theodore Dreiser took an apartment at number 16 a month later (bottom photo, center) and began An American Tragedy there.

Stlukesmariannemoore1920sPoet Marianne Moore (left, in the 1920s in the Village) and her mother lived two doors down in the basement of number 14.

The location was convenient, as Moore worked in the public library built across the street after the cemetery was moved and the land turned into a city park.

St. Luke’s had other notable residents: sculptor Theodore Roszak kept his studio at number 1. Jazz Age mayor Jimmy Walker had his family home at number 6. West Side Story playwright Arthur Laurents owned number 9.

And as 1980s TV fans know, number 10 was used to represent the exterior of the Huxtable family home on The Cosby Show.

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St. Luke’s is as lovely as ever, and if it’s still home to many poets and painters, they keep a low profile. As for the ones who resided here in the 1920s and 1930s, if only we knew more about how their lives overlapped as neighbors.

[Second and third photos: MCNY; Paul Cadmus painting by Luigi Lucioni, Brooklyn Museum]

The Roaring Twenties nightclub in Central Park

February 29, 2016

Central Park was originally intended to be a place of rest and relaxation, a naturalistic preserve away from the teeming crowds of the mid-19th century city.

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So how did a posh, glitzy nightclub end up on the park’s East Drive at 72nd Street in the high society 1920s?

It has to do with James J. Walker, the nightlife loving, charmingly corrupt mayor of New York from 1925 to 1932.

CentralparkcasinointeriorThe nightclub was called the Casino (above and left), and even before it became a club, it had an interesting history.

In 1864, it started out as a modest stone cottage designed by Calvert Vaux to be the “Ladies Refreshment Saloon,” where respectable women visiting the park unaccompanied by a man could grab a bite to eat.

By the late 19th century, it evolved into a regular restaurant. Rather than a gambling house, the Casino (“little house” in Italian) was “where well-to-do diners could get a steak for seventy-five cents” while sipping wine on a terrace (below), according to Andrew F. Smith’s Savoring Gotham.

Enter Mayor Walker. The Casino would now be run by Walker’s friends, who turned the expanded cottage into a Jazz Age nightspot.

“Under its new regime, the Casino catered to the rich and famous,” reported the Complete Illustrated Map and Guidebook to Central Park.

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“Met at the door by liveried footmen, guests dined on elegant French cuisine, and—despite Prohibition—happily paid inflated prices for mixers to go with the bootleg liquor they brought with them.”

Centralparkcasinowalker“Dancing, in a spectacular black-glass ballroom to the tunes of Leo Reisman’s society orchestra, went on until 3 a.m. Mayor Walker and his mistress, the Broadway showgirl Betty Compton (left), were often the last to leave.”

The Casino continued entertaining the city’s elite club crowd even after the Depression hit.

It was a huge success, grossing more than $3 million in five years of operation . . . with the city getting $42K in rent.

But by the early 1930s, it was seen as a symbol of excess. Mayoral candidate Fiorello La Guardia denounced it as a “whoopee joint.”

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In 1935, Robert Moses, the city’s legendary Parks Commissioner, tore it down (above, right before demolition) and replaced it with Rumsey Playfield—a concert venue that entertains New Yorkers in an entirely different way today.

[Photos: centralpark.org; MCNY]

Mystery and misery in a forgotten painter’s city

February 22, 2016

John R. Grabach didn’t just paint scenes of working-class life—he was the working class. [Below, “New York Street Scene: Man Made Canyons”]

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Born in 1886, Grabach grew up in blue collar Newark. Set on becoming an artist, he held various jobs—die cutter, freelance illustrator, greeting card designer—while taking classes in Newark and at the Art Students League in Manhattan.

[“Sidewalks of New York,” 1920s, Lower East Side]

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“Inspired by Ash Can school artists, Grabach became fascinated with the urban landscape,” the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) wrote on their website.

[“The Lone House,” 1929]

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Like Ash Can artists George Bellows and Robert Henri, he began working in New York in the 1920s, where he painted everyday images of tenements, clotheslines, skyscrapers, and city streets.

Grabach’s work reflected the beauty and mystery of contemporary urban life, as well as its disorienting loneliness and despair.

[“New York East Side,” 1924]

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“Toward the end of the decade his lighthearted treatment changed as he became more concerned with social conditions, and consequently during the Great Depression his urban images developed a stronger, satirical tone, and the figures were made larger and dominated the scene,” stated LACMA.

[“The Fifth Year,” 1934]

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By now, he’d won awards and recognition, and he became a beloved teacher of drawing at the now-defunct Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art (a casualty of Newark’s budget woes in the 1990s).

JohnGheadshotBut like so many other artists, Grabach gradually lost prominence and never became a household name. He died in relative obscurity in 1981.

He may not have been a trailblazer in the art world, but his work reflects an unappreciated sensitivity to the urban experience.

1920s skyscrapers towering over Times Square

December 14, 2015

With so many skyscrapers in the city topping out with more than 70, 80, even 100 floors, the tall buildings shown in this photo of Times Square look pretty puny.

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But they impressed New Yorkers at the time, and the caption on the back of the card boasts about them. “This aerial photograph of the Times Square section of New York shows many of the skyscraper office buildings located in the heart of New York,” it reads.

“Among the best known are the Times Building, the Bush Terminal Building, recently completed Loew’s State Theatre, and the famous Hotel Astor on Broadway.”

Celebrating a New York Christmas, 1920s style

December 25, 2014

Or maybe 1930s? It’s hard to tell when this postcard first appeared, but the illustration presents a very sophisticated, Art Deco skyscraper city during Christmastime.

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Happy Holidays from Ephemeral New York!

A militia marches on Battery Park in the 1920s

December 1, 2014

In this vintage postcard of lower Manhattan, some uniformed New York state militia members attract a curious crowd.

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The back of the card mentions that “state militia marching in Battery Park in accordance with the ‘mobilization orders’ that were issued.”

The card is stamped 1928, and it wasn’t printed much earlier than that. The Standard Oil building, the tall structure behind the Custom House, was completed that year.

A long-gone Chelsea alley called Franklin Terrace

September 8, 2014

West26thstreetsignWhile flipping through a book of New York City street maps from 1996, I noticed a section of West 26th Street off Ninth Avenue marked as “Franklin Terrace.”

It’s nowhere near Franklin Street in Tribeca. And it doesn’t seem related to nearby London Terrace, developed in 1845 as a residential stretch on Ninth Avenue at 23rd Street and now the name of the famous apartment complex on the same site.

FranklinterracemapFranklin Terrace was new to me. But a little research revealed that old New York did have a tiny courtyard off the south side of West 26th Street with this name.

“Here is a whole community of five or six houses with a little yard and a fence around it, all its own, in one of the most congested sections of the city, and the best part of it all is that a whole house of eight or nine rooms may be had for $30 t o $35 a month!” states a 1915 article in the New York Press.

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The piece puts Franklin Terrace at number 364 West 26th Street, and describes it as a “blind street.”

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“An ordinary gateway with a small iron gate leads to it. There is a paved yard with a row of old-time dwellings one one side and a couple of old-time trees that persist in bloom” (below left).

Franklinterracemcny1900Franklin Terrace dates to the 19th century, as the article makes note of the lack of “modern” conveniences. “Gas and hot and cold water, perhaps, but no electric lights, steam heat, or furnace,” the writer adds.

When did it fade into history? It’s unclear.

A 1925 New York Times short mentions that the houses here were being redeveloped and modernized “with  exteriors of old English type architecture with court and gardens (below right).”

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Within four decades, Franklin Terrace was gone. Since 1962, the 10-building Penn South cooperative, from 23rd to 28th Streets between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, with its lawns and playground, has occupied the site.

Why a book of tourist street maps from 1996 lists long-demapped Franklin Terrace is a mystery.

[Third image: New York Press article, 1915; fourth image: New York Times, 1912; fifth image: MCNY Collections Portal; sixth image: NYPL Digital Gallery]