Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1920s’

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]

A golden goddess topping Madison Square Garden

September 2, 2014

She was the second statue of Diana to grace the top of Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden, the sportsman’s playground with the glamorous roof garden that opened in 1890 on Madison Avenue and 26th Street.

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But this figure of the gilded goddess was the most famous, a 13-foot huntress who balanced on one toe aiming a bow and arrow for 32 years.

Illuminated at night by electricity, her slender form, the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, could be seen as far away as New Jersey.

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And it goes without saying that her nudity offended some New Yorkers, particularly Anthony Comstock, head of the self-created New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

Newyorksocietysuppressionvicelogo“The naked figure immediately caused outrage in some, and delight in others; it became known as the Statue That Offended New York,” states Atlas Obscura. “Critics led by the moralizing Anthony Comstock demanded it be taken down, whilst others flocked to see the sensuous Diana, glittering in the sunlight.”

To shush the critics, White had Saint-Gaudens drape a pennant over the statue to obscure Diana’s private parts. It quickly blew off in the wind, much to White’s delight.

DiananytDiana scandalized some residents, and she was witness to a scandalous murder on the roof in June 1906.

That’s when White was shot dead by Harry Thaw, the jealous husband of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. White had carried on a relationship with Nesbit since she was 16.

In 1924, Madison Square Garden was set to be demolished. Diana’s fate was hotly debated.

Some wanted her to grace the Municipal Building; others thought she should go atop the New York Life tower, which was replacing the Garden.

Where did she end up? In storage for six years, and then the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she greets visitors in the entrance hall to this day.

Magic and motion of 1920s Broadway at night

July 28, 2014

It’s an enchanting night in Times Square in this colorful postcard, and the Paramount Building, with the Paramount Theatre at street level, takes center stage.

Opened in 1926 in an era of grand movie palaces, the Paramount captured the city’s attention and imagination.

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The lobby “was modeled after the Paris Opera House with white marble columns, balustrades, and an opening arms grand staircase,” explains Cinema Treasures. “The ceilings were fresco and gilt. . . . in the main lobby there was an enormous crystal chandelier.”

During World War II, the globe and clock were painted black, so potential enemy invaders couldn’t see.

The Paramount Theatre bit the dust in 1964, and the building is now used for offices. Here’s a much more sedate daytime version of the same stretch of Broadway just a decade earlier.

A century of fire hydrants cooling New York kids

July 28, 2014

I’m not sure exactly when the first New York City fire hydrant was wrenched open so neighborhood kids could play in the cool rush of water on a hot summer day.

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But this very New York way to chase away the heat may have caught on and been officially sanctioned in the late teens, when John Hylan was mayor (below, in 1921, in a NYC Municipal Archives photo).

“The mayor is particularly good to children,” the Queens borough president was quoted saying in a New York Times article from 1925.

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“It was his great heart that ordered the streets closed so that children could have a safe place in which to play, and it was his heart that ordered the policemen and firemen in summer to give the children baths from fire hydrants so that they might keep cool.”

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Since then, the spray—or trickle, as this NYPL photo of some boys on the Bowery in 1919 shows—from fire hydrants has cooled off millions of little New Yorkers, legally or otherwise.

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This AP photo was taken on Mulberry Street in 1936, the year of an exceptionally brutal heat wave.

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Turning Mulberry Street into a river looks a lot more exciting than hanging out under a giant shower at Lexington and 85th Street of “Croton surf,” as the caption to this 1920 NYC Municipal Archives photo calls it.

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New York in the 1960s could be pretty gritty, but at least the hydrants worked. Photographer Bruce Davidson captured this photo in 1966 of a boy on 100th Street.

A 10-day heat wave gripped the city in 1953, and Life magazine photographers captured some wonderful images of kids opening a hydrant (and then a police officer putting a stop to the fun).

[Top photo: “Hot Day,” Lothar Stelter, 1952 ©Lothar Stelter]

How New York City invented the penthouse

May 16, 2014

Penthouse1930sbereniceabbotPenthouse: the word conjures up luxury and exclusivity.

Thing is, it’s a clever 1920s rebranding of the top of a building, where no one with any choice used to want to live.

For most of the city’s history, the single-structure mansion was the preferred domicile for the rich.

At the turn of the 20th century, monied New Yorkers were increasingly occupying “French Flat” cooperative apartments.

But even then, the undesirable rooftop apartment was given over to servants. Until the city and its tastes changed in the Jazz Age.

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“By the end of the 1920s, the cliff dwellers of Manhattan were beginning to appropriate for their own pleasure the once forlorn roofs of apartment buildings,” writes Donald L. Miller in his excellent new book on New York in the 1920s, Supreme City.

Penthouserestaurant30cps“The ‘Cinderella’ of New York architecture, the ‘penthouse,’ or roof apartment, had for decades been considered the least attractive part of a high building, a boxlike residence for the servant class, set among soot-scarred chimneys and wooden water tanks.”

Now, with a vertical city making air and light the most luxurious commodities of all, developers and their wealthy clients had these “cramped dormitories for the laboring classes” torn down and “replaced by new luxury quarters.”

“[Reporter Virginia] Pope saw ‘a new chapter of New York’s social history . . . being written above the roof line,'” wrote Miller. “In there roof houses ‘New Yorkers achieved ‘a detachment impossible to any dwelling set on earth,'” wrote journalist William Irwin. “There were no neighbors in sight; ‘only the tainted air above Manhattan.'”

A 1924 New York Times article foresaw this new desire for penthouses, which were still very limited in number, and only a few dated farther back that the late teens.

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One penthouse in particular, “is a substantial affair of steel construction, cement floors, and wire embedded windows. Windows on four sides give on the towers and steeples, the skyscrapers and the occasional treetops of the city.

“A wide walled terrace looks up to a ceiling no one can touch, the blue sky of heaven.”

[Top photo: 55 Seventh Avenue in the 1930s, by Berenice Abbott; second: a 1940s Gramercy Park penthouse, NYC Municipal Archives; Third: a postcard from the Penthouse restaurant, Museum of the City of New York; bottom photo: a Tudor City penthouse in the 1930s, MCNY]

The West Side girl who swam the English Channel

April 21, 2014

GetrudeederlepicGood thing the heavy Victorian female “bathing outfit” of the late 19th century evolved.

Thanks to lighter, tighter suits, women began taking up swimming—like young Gertrude Ederle. Born in 1906 to German immigrant parents, Trudy learned to swim at the Jersey shore. She dubbed herself a “water baby” and broke dozens of distance records.

She medaled in the 1924 Paris Olympics. But her greatest achievement was yet to come.

GetrudeederlesouvinerphotoIn the 1920s, crazy competitions of strength and endurance were all the rage, among them attempts to swim across the English Channel.

Men had made the 21-mile trip, but no woman had—until August 1926, when 20-year-old Trudy left Dover, England smeared in grease and made it ashore in Cape Griz-Niz, France after 14 hours and 20 minutes in choppy, rough waters.

On August 27th, when she arrived home from Europe, New York City went wild with celebration.

“Airplanes circled overhead as her ship steamed up the Narrows, the harbor swarmed with the biggest fleet of small craft ever seen, and cheering admirers packed Broadway as she rode to City Hall in a blizzard of ticker tape, confetti, and flowers,” wrote Peter Salwen in Upper West Side Story.

“The Daily News gave her seven full pages of coverage and a new road roadster, and after a stop at City Hall to accept the key to the city from Mayor Walker, she rode home to a neighborhood that had become a sea of flags, bunting, and ‘Welcome, Trudy’ signs.”

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Her father’s butcher shop at 108 Amsterdam was decorated with bunting. The next day 5,000 people turned out on West 65th Street for a block party in her honor (above).

GertudeederleparadeTrudy received offers from Hollywood and Broadway and was deluged by marriage proposals. But after the hoopla died down, she mostly returned to living a quiet, unassuming life.

 She moved to Queens and working as a swimming instructor for deaf children (her hearing was seriously damaged in the water of the Channel).

The swimmer dubbed “America’s Best Girl” by President Coolidge after her feat died in 2003 at age 98.

She hasn’t been totally lost to history; in 2013, the city opened the Gertrude Ederle Recreation Center, complete with a pool, in her old neighborhood on West 60th Street.

John Sloan paints many moods of McSorley’s Bar

February 13, 2014

McsorleysbarjohnsloanBeing ensconced inside a dark bar with a pint and good conversation is many a New Yorker’s  idea of heaven.

John Sloan may have felt that way too.

His famous 1912 painting “McSorley’s Bar” depicts working-class customers comfortably drinking around a wood bar (with bartender Bill McSorley, son of the original owner, who founded the East Seventh Street ale house in 1854), wiling away the hours.

It’s his most renowned McSorley’s painting, but not the only one. Sloan completed at least three more, each capturing various glimpses of loneliness and whimsy and highlighting the small moments of pleasure and respite in a workingman’s life.

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“McSorley’s Back Room” also dates to 1912. “The hushed, contemplative mood of this painting echoes Sloan’s description of the bar as an oasis ‘where the world seems shut out—where there is no time, nor turmoil,'” states the Hood Museum website, quoting Sloan.

“The tavern’s founder was no longer living when Sloan discovered the place, but through this painting and a related etching Sloan appears to pay homage to John McSorley, who, according to his son, always sat there in the sun.”

In 1928, Sloan memorialized the dozen cats living at the bar in “McSorley’s Cats.” Could that be bartender Bill McSorley again, with cats badgering him for food?

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With Prohibition still the rule of law, Sloan painted “McSorley’s Saturday Night” between 1928 and 1930. States the McSorley’s website: “everyone seems to have a mug in his hands.”

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Sloan moved to New York in 1904 and spent many years depicting the city’s moods, from joy to isolation.

As for McSorley’s, this dusty old saloon, which famously refused to serve women until a court order in 1970, has been memorialized many times in art and literature, most famously by Berenice Abbott, Joseph Mitchell, and e.e. cummings.

The Rockefeller Center that never came to be

January 23, 2014

Rockefeller Center is a symbol of 20th century New York City: a 14-building Art Deco icon  that’s crawling with tourists and office workers.

Metropolitansquare1928But the complex there today wasn’t the original city within a city that John D. Rockefeller Jr. envisioned for 49th to 50th Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

In 1928, the plaza surrounded by towering buildings was to be called “Metropolitan Square” (right).

Anchoring it would be a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, then located in an 1880s theater on no-longer-trendy Broadway and 39th Street.

MetoperahouseproposalurbanRockefeller offered land at the site to the Met for free; they simply had to raise the funds for a new theater. (One proposal by architect Joseph Urban is at left.)

A deal was set . . . and then the stock market collapsed in 1929. The Met backed out.

“Although the Rockefellers were also hit by ‘Black Tuesday,’ losing half their fortune, the 54-year-old heir managed to finance the costly development by agreeing to be personally responsible for the repayment of the loans,” stated the website for PBS’s American Experience.

“In the absence of an opera building, [Rockefeller] envisioned a commercial development for the site. . . . Over the course of nine years, in the depth of the Depression, the building of Rockefeller Center would provide employment for 75,000 workers.”

[Below, what the neighborhood looked like before it was torn down and replaced by glitzy skyscrapers and office space, from the MCNY]

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By 1939, construction finished on the last building. “The vertical thrust of the whole ensemble was meant to symbolize humanity’s progress toward new frontiers, a theme dear to Rockefeller, who sought to advance that cause through his philanthropies,” explained PBS’ American Experience.


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