Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1920s’

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]

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]


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