Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1930s’

A printmaker’s New York in shadows and light

February 24, 2020

Martin Lewis’ masterful etchings—which offer shadowy, poetic glimpses of 1920s and 1930s New York—have been featured on Ephemeral New York many times before.

[“Dock Workers Under the Brooklyn Bridge,” 1916-1918]

But just when I’d given up on finding new examples of the way he illuminates the darker (and sometimes darkly humorous) edges of the cityscape, I came across the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s digitized collection—which includes a trove of Lewis’ etchings.

[“Tree Manhattan,” no date]

His street scenes demonstrate a deep understanding of the city’s many moods. Yet Lewis wasn’t a New York native. Born in Australia, he made his way to Manhattan in the early 1900s.

[“Derricks,” 1927]

By 1905, he was living on West 14th Street and making a living as a commercial artist, according to a biography on The Old Print Shop website, where his work is featured.

[“The Great Shadow,” 1925]

His first surviving etchings date to the mid-1910s. But his compositions from the 1920s and 1930s are the ones that made his name, giving him access to galleries and shows.

[“Subway Steps,” 1930]

These are finely detailed illustrations—mostly nocturnes—of solitary figures or crowds. People are coming and going along sidewalks and subway staircases, on their way home from a night out or heading to work in the morning.

[“Break in the Thunderstorm,” 1930]

Some are on rooftops or in alleys, others portray people working the night shift as the rest of the city is safe in well-lit apartments. Laundry hangs on lines; tenements are dwarfed by the glowing interiors of towering buildings.

Lewis often featured kids playing and young women dressed for a night on the town. He didn’t always indicate the exact setting of his street scenes, but he sometimes put a neighborhood or bridge in the title. (The locations of the work in this post, unfortunately, are shrouded in mystery.)

It’s hard to explain why Lewis’ surviving prints still resonate today. A New York Times review of his work from 1929 suggests that he captures the contradictions inherent in New York—the shifting light and darkness, the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness.

Interestingly, the faces of his figures are often hidden from view. But based on their body language and the surrounding street scene, we can imagine what they’re thinking and feeling.

[All images: Smithsonian American Art Museum]

The most dazzling luxury apartment ads of 1935

February 24, 2020

It’s 1935, and you’re a New Yorker who needs a new apartment. The Depression is still raging, but your fortunes are on the upswing, and you’re thinking luxurious digs in Midtown or on the East or West Sides near Central Park.

Looks like you’ve got lots of options. The July 27, 1935 New Yorker (selling for 15 cents!) contains many classy apartment ads toward the back pages. These are the most amenity-packed ads for buildings that still exist and are still quite luxe.

The “most distinguished address in America” is quite a claim, but One Fifth Avenue beside the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park is still a beautiful building. This Art Deco gem was built in 1927.

I’m not sure the Parc Vendome of today still has a swimming pool. But it is an impressive fortress of a building fronting West 57th Street. (And the phone exchange: Circle for Columbus Circle?)

The El Dorado continues to shine on Central Park West, its two towers as impressive as other iconic West Side buildings like the Dakota and the San Remo.

Ten Park Avenue at 34th Street might not sound spectacular. But in the 1930s, this building maintained the hotel-style feel of many early apartment houses. Room service is available, and this one-bedroom pad is only $1300…per year, I believe.

“The trend is toward the river,” proclaims this ad for Southgate, a “fashionable colony” of five Bing & Bing buildings on East 51st and East 52nd Street designed by Emery Roth.

“Set apart from the rest of the town” for “smart New Yorkers”…I’m sold!

Taking a sunbath on a Depression-era city roof

July 8, 2019

Martin Lewis was a 20th century painter and printmaker better known for his mesmerizing etchings of New York’s darkened corners and shadowy streets, illuminated by lamp light and store signs.

But some of his urban landscapes bring people and buildings out of the shadows and into daylight—like in this image.

Here, two women sit on a tenement rooftop, one enjoying the timeless ritual of catching some sun on a New York roof.

Disapproving mother and young, attractive daughter? Lewis completed this etching in 1935. While it might be the Depression, the city before us is inviting and limitless—and it belongs to the daughter.

A city printmaker of “twilight, shadow, mystery”

March 11, 2019

Like other New York City printmakers in the 1930s, Armin Landeck’s etchings and engravings focus on the city’s dark corners and mysterious pockets.

[“Housetops, 14th Street,” 1937]

His work displays the kind of familiarity with the city one would expect from an artist who grew up peering around the early 20th century Manhattan of dimly lit bars, shadowy elevated trains, and hidden tenement roofs.

[“Pop’s Tavern.” 1934]

But he was not a New York City native. Born in Wisconsin in 1904, Landeck arrived in Gotham to study architecture at Columbia University and attend summer classes at the Art Students League on West 57th Street.

[“Manhattan Vista,” 1934]

“By the time of his graduation from Columbia in 1927, he had become interested in printmaking and had bought a used press,” states the website for the National Gallery of Art. When he couldn’t find a job as an architect, he turned to printmaking.

Though he lived in Connecticut, he taught in New York and had a studio on 14th Street. Landeck spent much of his career rendering nocturnes of rooftops, stairwells, street corners, and other “secretive places amid the very public place, Manhattan,” as the New York Times put it in a 1998 article.

[“Manhattan Nocturne,” 1938]

“Like Hopper, Landeck uses the human figure sparely; he was more interested in the surroundings, and his ambience of choice obviously was urban,” stated the Times.

[“Approaching Storm,” 1937]

In a 1980 Times article, Landeck addressed the fact that often the only person in one of his prints is the viewer. “That there are no people is intentional on my part, because I look at New York in terms of theater very often,” he said.

Landeck’s work became more abstract as the 20th century continued, but no less accomplished. Still, his prints from the 1930s and 1940s might best exemplify his style. Armin was “ever the master of twilight, of shadow, and mystery,” as one 2003 book title described him.

[Prints 1, 2, and 4: Smithsonian American Art Museum; Print 3: Artnet; Print 5: Artnet]

A painter who said the subway was his art school

October 15, 2018

New York artists have always found inspiration in the subway. But few were so taken by their fellow passengers that they whipped out a piece of newsprint and sketched faces in the middle of a ride.

Joseph Solman did. Born in Russia but an American since childhood, he studied at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design.

Despite his formal training, Solman maintained that “he had learned more by sketching on buses and subways,” according to his 2008 obituary in the New York Times.

(Solman died at age 99 that year in his studio above the Second Avenue Deli.)

“Claiming ‘the subway was his art school,'” stated the Danforth Museum in Massachusetts, he “documented dozens of passengers as he commuted to work as a part-time bookie at the Belmont Park race track in Long Island, NY, in the 1960s.”

“With pencil in hand and the daily racing forms as his paper, Solman used sparing, gestural lines to record random travelers engrossed in their private worlds amidst the public space of the commuter train,” the museum continued.

His gouache portraits are tender and poetic, and different from the more abstract urbanscapes he was known for in the 1930s. In 1935 he became a founder of the Ten, a group of Expressionist painters in New York City.

The Ten co-founder Mark Rothko was also inspired by the subway, envisioning the platform as a bare, silent place where people stand close but remain in their solitary worlds.

Solman shared a similar sensibility. “Solman’s subway paintings eloquently capture the tenor of the commuter train, which can be a metaphor for urban America: both crowded and noisy, yet ironically isolated and self-contained,” stated the Danforth Museum.

His 1960s subway riders don’t look all that different from today’s commuters, right? They stare ahead and avert their eyes, armed with an expression of disinterest or a preoccupation with whatever they are reading. I see them every weekday morning.

Seventh Avenue as a dark, mysterious canyon

July 31, 2017

If you’ve never imagined New York as a concrete canyon, this 1935 photo by Berenice Abbott just might change your thinking.

Abbott manages to turn utilitarian 35th Street—not exactly the city’s most picturesque east-west thoroughfare—into a river carrying vehicles and pedestrians surrounded by the shadowy cliffs of buildings.

It looks like Abbott aimed her camera in the Garment District. MOMA’s caption for the photo mistakenly says this is Seventh Avenue at 35th Street, but smart Ephemeral readers pointed out that MOMA had the caption backwards.

The crowds inside a 14th Street subway station

April 3, 2017

Reginald Marsh painted everything in his New York of the 1930s and 1940s: Bowery crowds, showgirls, forgotten men, Coney Island beachgoers, tugboats, panhandlers, and shoppers.

So of course he would take his sketchpad and chronicle New Yorkers using mass transit underground. In 1930 he painted “Subway, 14th Street,” showing a crowd of city residents rushing en masse to or from the train, each absorbed in his or her own world.

If only the newspaper headlines were a little easier for viewers to read!

A Salvation Army Art Deco fortress on 14th Street

August 29, 2016

In 1880, eight missionaries sent to the U.S. by the British-based Salvation Army disembarked at Castle Garden in Lower Manhattan.

Salvationarmylogo

Ridiculed at first, the group’s presence and influence grew, particularly in New York, where “officers” ran rescue homes, soup kitchens, and lodging houses and the evangelical mission turned into what founder William Booth later dubbed “social salvation.”

SalvationarmywikiAnd of course, they launched the tradition of setting up kettles on busy corners, asking for Christmas dinner donations for needy families.

So when it came time to build national headquarters in the 1920s, Gotham got the nod.

In 1930, a concrete and steel Art Deco complex consisting of offices, an auditorium, and Centennial Memorial Temple opened.

A women’s residence hall was also part of the complex, its entrance on 13th Street.

Though no longer the Salvation Army’s national HQ, the fortress-like structures of 14th Street stand as examples of streamlined Art Deco beauty and perfection.

Salvationarmygate

The complex was designed in part by Ralph Walker, the architect behind New York Art Deco masterpieces such as the Verizon building (now the pricey residential Walker Tower) in Chelsea.

Salvationarmymarkle

New York is resplendent with Art Deco: movie theaters, offices, apartment residences, and even subway entrances.

[Second photo: Salvation Army Headquarters from 14th Street, Wikipedia]

1930s posters pleading for “planned housing”

August 8, 2016

Disease, fire, crime, infant mortality—could better housing conditions make a dent in these social and environmental problems plaguing Depression-era New York City?

WPAfire

Fiorello La Guardia thought so. After taking office in 1934, Mayor La Guardia made what was gently called “slum clearance” a priority and argued that the “submerged middle class” needed better housing.

WPAposterjuveniledelinquency

Tear down the old, build up the new!” he thundered on his WNYC radio show. “Down with rotten antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels, down with disease, down with firetraps, let in the sun, let in the sky, a new day is dawning, a new life, a new America.”

WPApostereliminatecrime

La Guardia wasn’t necessarily being melodramatic. Much of the housing stock for poor and working class residents in New York consisted of tenements that were shoddily built to accommodate thousands of newcomers in the second half of the 19th century.

WPArottenliving

By the 1930s, many tenements were falling apart. And it’s safe to assume that not all of them adhered to the requirements of the Tenement Act of 1901, which mandated adequate ventilation and a bathroom in every apartment.

WPAinfantmortality

To help make his case for housing improvement, La Guardia created the Mayor’s Poster Project, part of the Civil Works Administration (and later under the thumb of the WPA’s Federal Art Project).

LaguardiaradioArtists designed and produced posters that advocated for better housing—as well as other health and social issues, from eating right to getting checked for syphilis.

La Guardia achieved his goals. Under his administration, the first city public housing development, simply named the First Houses, began accepting families in today’s East Village in 1935.

The mayor—and his posters—set the stage for the boom in public housing that accelerated after World War II. Whether these developments helped ease the city’s social ills is still a contentious topic.

The Library of Congress has a worth-checking-out collection of hundreds of WPA posters from around the nation.

A plane collides with a Macy’s Thanksgiving float

November 9, 2015

Ever since Macy’s added balloon floats to their iconic Thanksgiving Day parade in 1927, mishaps and fails have become regular occurrences.

Tomcatfloatfelix1927

Felix the Cat (above) got tangled in telephone wires that year. Popeye dumped cold rainwater that had collected on his cap onto the crowd in 1957. And poor Kermit the Frog; his head sadly deflated in 1991.

ParadefloatairplaneheadlineBut at least it’s been 83 years since a float was hit by an airplane.

This midair collision happened in 1932 over a heavily populated area of Jamaica, Queens—long after the parade had ended and the helium-filled balloons were released into the sky (the custom in the early 1930s).

Annette Gipson, 22, happened to be at the controls of a biplane with her instructor, flying at 5,000 feet.

TomcatannettegipsonAll of a sudden, the brazen “girl flyer,” as newspapers dubbed Gipson, noticed the 60-foot Tom-Cat balloon coming her way.

“She shouted, ‘I think I’ll have a piece of the neck’ to [her instructor], as she took dead aim at the cat,” reports the book Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

“Upon impact, the balloon wrapped itself around the left wing. The plane went into a deep tailspin and sped toward the ground out of control.”

Afraid that the plane would catch fire when it hit the ground, Gipson turned off the ignition. “Witnesses in the surrounding neighborhoods, straining their necks to look skyward, gasped as they heard the engine die and saw the plane plummeting to earth.”

Before it did, her instructor managed to take over. As the craft came within 80 feet of rooftops, he got control and was able to land at Roosevelt Field, as planned.

Tomcatfloat

Considering that she almost crash-landed in the middle of Queens, Gipson was nonplussed.

Tomcatheadline2“It was a sensation that I never felt before—the whirling housetops, rushing up to meet me—and the thoughts of a whole lifetime flashed through my mind,” she told reporters who had rushed out to Roosevelt Field to speak to her after they’d been tipped off about her collision.

Gipson went on to become a prominent “aviatrix,” as the newspapers called her, touring the country and hosting headline-grabbing women-only air races at Floyd Bennett Field.