Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1930s’

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.

The mystery quote on the Daily News building

June 27, 2014

DailynewsfacadeThe (former) headquarters for the New York Daily News, on East 42nd Street, is a 1930 skyscraper masterpiece.

The enormous lobby, with its illuminated revolving globe and compass points set into the floor, is an impressive monument to wonder and the bigness of the universe, as well as a nod to the newspaper’s global perspective.

Then there’s the huge facade framing the 39-story building’s main entrance.

Dailynewsbuilding1931This bas relief features the newspaper name, an urban cityscape, and a crowd of people, with this inscription: “he made so many of them.”

What does it mean?

It’s part of a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “God must love the common people; he made so many of them.”

Sounds like an homage to the regular New Yorkers who made the Daily News, which got its start in 1919 as the city’s first tabloid, one of the nation’s biggest newspapers throughout the 20th century.

Dailynewsfacadequote

At the time of the building’s opening, the News had an impressive circulation of 1.3 million. Now it’s roughly half that.

Walker Evans’ “lineup of faces” on the subway

June 9, 2014

Walker Evans might be best known for his stark, intimate photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers across a Deep South landscape of roadside cafes and churches.

Subwayportraitswalkerevans

But Evans also has an extensive history as a New York City street photographer. A St. Louis native, he settled into a Bohemian life in Manhattan in the 1920s, first intending to be a writer before discovering a different kind of poetry in photography.

Subwayportraitswalkerevanaccord

He captured glimpses of everyday city street life, taking pictures of people on tenement stoops and inside lunchrooms. And from 1938 to 1941, he took his camera underground and shot closeups of anonymous New Yorkers on the subway.

He shot these unsentimental subway portraits secretly, hiding the camera lens between the buttons of his coat, waiting for just the right moment to click the shutter hidden in his coat sleeve.

Subwayportraitsevans87thbway

“Although the setting was public, he found that his subjects, unposed and lost in their own thoughts, displayed a constantly shifting medley of moods and expressions—by turns curious, bored, amused, despondent, dreamy, and dyspeptic,” states the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“‘The guard is down and the mask is off,’ [Evans] remarked. ‘Even more than in lone bedrooms (where there are mirrors), people’s faces are in naked repose down in the subway.'”

Subwayportraitsevanscityhall

In 1991, The New York Times reviewed a National Gallery exhibit of Evans’ subway photos. “Evans makes no particular political argument through his subway pictures,” the article states.

“Instead he presents a cross section of people, unposed and anonymous, forming what he called a lineup of faces.”

Subwayportraitsevansmanpaper

It wasn’t until 1966 when the subway portraits were published in Many Are Called, a book with an introduction by James Agee, who collaborated with Evans on his 1939 portrait of tenant families, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Viewing these naked, powerful images today, they demonstrate that subway riding in 1938 was pretty similar to today: a dance of looking away, getting lost in dreams or worries, busying yourself with a newspaper, or finding yourself the object of an off-putting subway stare.

[Photographs copyright Walker Evans Archive, Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The jet-age Airlines Terminal on 42nd Street

May 31, 2014

In the 1930s, the future of passenger air travel looked bright—if still out of reach for the average New Yorker (a NYC to Europe flight cost $375, or more than five grand in today’s cash!)

Airlineterminalbldgpostcard

To make flying more convenient, the city constructed the Airlines Terminal Building, an appropriately futuristic, Art Deco-inspired structure on 42nd Street in Midtown.

Here, passengers didn’t actually catch their flights but could pick up tickets for any airline serving New York.

Airlinesterminalbldg19501The idea was that “you could buy your ticket in town and ride in comfort on a dedicated bus to LaGuardia or Newark airports,” explains citynoise.org.

Of course, LaGuardia Airport wasn’t LaGuardia yet—in 1939, it opened as New York City Municipal Airport, where Pan Am, American, United, Eastern, and an outfit known as Transcontinental & Western Air, aka TWA, flew out of.

Located across the street from Grand Central, it was a wild building, with kind of a space age crown flanked by two eagles on top.

Airlinesterminalbldg1970s

The Airlines Terminal Building outlived its usefulness. It was bulldozed to make room for the headquarters for Phillip Morris, which has occupied the address since the early 1980s.

[Middle photo: MCNY collections; bottom: Citynoise.org]

Riding the gritty High Line of the 1930s

January 27, 2014

HighlinefreighttrainCould anyone in 1934—the year the High Line opened—have predicted that the gritty elevated rail line running along Manhattan’s West Side in and out of factories and warehouses would be turned into a grassy, pedestrian-packed park 75 years later?

Probably not. These Parks Department photos reveal the High Line of a more industrial New York, a city with a bustling manufacturing base all along the far West Side.

A freight train heads downtown in the first one—dropping off raw materials or picking up finished products.

The second depicts the High Line south of Horatio Street, a section that was demolished in the 1960s.

Highlinefromwestbeth1935

The vantage point: the former Bell Laboratories, now known as Westbeth, residential and commercial space set aside by the city for artists.

What was the last shipment to be transported by train via the High Line before it closed in 1980? A load of frozen turkeys.

Bold shapes and colors of a 1930s El station

January 23, 2014

Francis Criss’ “Third Avenue El” depicts an austere elevated station in 1933 devoid of people and trains. The coolness of the design contrasts with the warmth of colors.

ThirdavenueelCriss

Criss, usually described as a precisionist painter, created Depression-era urban cityscapes marked by bold colors and geometric shapes.

The subjects of these two downtown New York paintings still look the same almost a century later.

The lonely view from a room in Brooklyn

January 16, 2014

Edward Hopper provides few clues about the location or even the season in his haunting 1932 painting “Room in Brooklyn.”

Hopperroominbrooklyn1932

It’s a stark, isolating view of flat, impenetrable Brooklyn rooftops and a lone figure brushed by light in a neatened bedroom.

Is she reading? Contemplating? Or perhaps she’s looking down on the sidewalk, anticipating a guest’s arrival.

A snowy, windy day on the Sixth Avenue El

December 30, 2013

Martin Lewis’ 1931 drypoint etching “Snow on the El” reveals the Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street el station on a wet, snowy, blustery winter’s day.

Snowontheelmartinlewis1931

The woman in the foreground looks warm in her coat. The poor guy at the newsstand under the stairs probably isn’t so toasty.

More of Martin Lewis’ evocative etchings of New York in the 1930s can be found here.