Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1920s’

How Edward Hopper sees the Manhattan Bridge

December 30, 2019

Edward Hopper has painted the Manhattan Bridge before; “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” from 1928, depicts this least-celebrated East River crossing with “eerie stillness” and a sense of solitude and isolation.

Two years earlier, he captured something similar in “Manhattan Bridge” (owned by the Whitney Museum). It’s a scene free of human beings and any clue about the time of day or season of the year.

The Manhattan Bridge span (only 17 years old in 1926) is flowy and graceful. The low-rise red building at the water’s edge is literally on its last legs; it leans away from the bridge like it’s afraid of it.

The scene seems so passive, it’s almost as if time is standing still…but time is rushing forth. The old city of wood shacks is bowing down to the modern metropolis of steel bridges that are supposed to connect people in an urban landscape that actually isolates.

The most spectacular mansion on Sutton Place

July 1, 2019

When developers created Sutton Place in the 1870s, they started with a one-block strip of 24 brownstones between 58th and 59th Streets and the East River and Avenue A (which ran uptown at the time).

But it wasn’t until the 1920s when Sutton Place, now stretching from 57th Street to 60th Street, became synonymous with extreme wealth and privilege.

This couldn’t have happened if a group of New York’s richest and most notable women—such as Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan, and society decorator Elsie De Wolfe— didn’t decide to turn this out of the way street into the city’s new corridor of exclusivity.

Among these influential women was Anne Harriman Vanderbilt (left).

Anne Vanderbilt was the widow of William K. Vanderbilt, a grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt and ex-husband of Gilded Age society doyenne turned suffrage supporter Alva Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt’s announcement that she was relocating from her Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street mansion to a part of Manhattan known for its proximity to slaughterhouses and factories was quite shocking.

It marked such a shift among the society set that the news made the gossip columns and bold type headlines.

“Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt to Live in Avenue A,” proclaimed the New York Times in 1921, in an article that chronicled the movement of “society leaders” to this “new colony” of Sutton Place that sought to blend the three “classifications of life—social, artistic, and professional.”

Vanderbilt was a philanthropist who helped finance a development of open air tenements for tuberculosis sufferers not far away on Avenue A (today’s York Avenue) and 77th Street.

Though devoted to her charitable endeavors, Vanderbilt apparently pulled out all the stops when it came to her  new digs.

Instead of building a luxury townhouse or moving to a ritzy apartment residence, she commissioned architects to create an expansive Georgian-style mansion on the corner of Sutton Place and 57th Street.

Christened “One Sutton Place North” and completed in 1921, the mansion was a 13-room (plus 17 servant rooms) ivy-covered home with a bright blue front door.

Stately shutters flanked enormous windows, and shady trees swayed gently across the front facade.

Perhaps the mansion’s most impressive features were the terraces, gardens, and the lawn sloping down to the East River.

Vanderbilt only lived on Sutton Place until 1927, after which she relocated to a triplex on Park Avenue.

Her magnificent house still stands on this lovely corner today, one of the last single-family mansions in Manhattan on a street that isn’t trendy but still has its air of exclusivity.

Want a sneak peek? It was up for sale in 2018 for $21 million bucks.

[Third photo: Wikipedia; fourth photo: MCNY 1921, X2010.11.14511; fifth image: New York Times headline 1920; sixth image: New York Daily News 1920; seventh image: Berenice Abbott, 1926]

“Human alienation” on the Manhattan Bridge

June 10, 2019

Countless artists have painted the Brooklyn Bridge. But not Edward Hopper.

Instead of focusing on the city’s most beloved and beatified bridge, Hopper in 1928 used the nearby but less-loved Manhattan Bridge to depict the isolation and solitude of modern urban life.

“In his powerful and evocative painting, Manhattan Bridge Loop, Edward Hopper has frozen this transportation nexus of bridge, streets, railways, and crowded tenements in lower Manhattan in an eerie stillness and bathed it with cold crystalline light,” states the Addison Gallery of Art in Massachusetts, where the painting is on display.

“A solitary figure, trudging along under the shadow of the blank embankment, suggests the human alienation possible within the urban life.”

Past and present collide on Blackwell’s Island

April 30, 2018

We know it as Roosevelt island. But until the 1920s, it was Blackwell’s Island—the two-mile spit of land in the East River.

Here, the 19th century city put its poor, quarantined, and convicted in penitentiaries, a lunatic asylum, and a smallpox hospital, among other institutions.

Edward Hopper’s 1928 painting, Blackwell’s Island, contrasts the cobalt blue waters of the East River (so lovely a speedboat is whizzing along) with the island’s haunting past as a broken-down dumping ground for so-called undesirables.

There’s almost no one in the painting—but you can feel the humanity emanating from those buildings.

Hopper “painted this work at the height of his powers and it exemplifies some of the best of Hopper’s style: a complex architectural composition with a full range of light and shadow, few people and the drama of the past colliding with the present in the form of historic architecture meeting modern,” says Don Bacigalupi, president of Crystal Bridges, which owns the painting.

Identifying an eerie drugstore in a 1927 painting

August 14, 2017

The “eerie nocturnal view” of this corner apothecary painted by Edward Hopper in 1927 is easy to get lost in.

At first glance, Silbers Pharmacy looks like an ordinary city storefront, whose bright electric lights and colorful window display on a dark night feels inviting.

Here is a place city residents can turn to for late-night prescriptions, or even for an emergency laxative (Ex-Lax was invented in 1906 and manufactured in Brooklyn, hence the Ex-Loft lofts on Atlantic Avenue).

Yet the more you look at the painting (simply titled “Drug Store”), the more ominous it becomes, strangely devoid of any sign of humanity. It’s classic Hopper, of course, an artist whose work reflects the isolation and alienation of modern urban life.

So where was Silbers Pharmacy? Hopper apparently never identified the street corner; he was known to obscure identifying details of many of the storefronts he painted, as he famously did with his late-night diner masterpiece, Nighthawks.

But it was likely near his studio on Washington Square. One guess comes from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which put forth the possibility that Silbers occupied the Waverly Place building where Three Lives & Company bookstore is today.

Three Lives’ official address is on West 10th Street. But the door to the left is 184 Waverly, just like the “184” on the Silbers sign. And hmm, doesn’t the cast-iron column outside the door looks quite similar?

[Second photo: Alamy]

Spring flowers arrive on a rainy Village sidewalk

March 27, 2017

Few artists painted the moods, rhythms, and rituals of the seasons like John Sloan, who moved to New York from Philadelphia in 1904 and spent the early 20th century in Greenwich Village—living and working for almost a decade at 88 Washington Place.

His windows facing Lower Sixth Avenue “gave Sloan a view of street life from an elevated vantage point, which he frequently incorporated into his paintings,” states the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston.

A real-life wagon loaded with vibrant flowers was the inspiration for his 1924 painting “Flowers of Spring,” which belongs to the MFA.

As Sloan (at left in a self-portrait from 1890) himself recalled in his book Gist of Art:

“This picture has, in a very direct, simple way, handed on the thrill that comes to everyone on a wet spring morning from the first sight of the flower huckster’s wagon. The brilliant notes of the plants surrounded on all sides by wet, city grays.”

Sloan’s beloved wife, Dolly, is the woman on the left with the umbrella.

[Hat Tip: Kathy van Vorhees]

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.”

bentoncityactivitieswithdancehall

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.

Burnsdetectiveagencysign

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.

Stlukesplacerow

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.

Stlukesplace11to131900mcny

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.

Stlukes15to17

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]