Friday, April 30, 2010

Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach, at your leisure

Above: Manhattan Beach Hotel

EPISODE 102 Today Brighton Beach is known for Brooklyn's thriving Russian community, while its neighbor Manhattan Beach is calm and family oriented. But over a hundred years ago, these neighborhoods were the homes of giant, lavish hotels catering to the upper classes. While regular folk were playing at Coney Island's Steeplechase Park, Dreamland and Luna Park, the wealthiest were enjoying 'the tonic of sea bathing' at three of the most toniest hotels on the East Coast -- Brighton Beach Hotel, the Oriental Hotel and Manhattan Beach Hotel.

Find out the origins of these long-gone resorts and how they make their mark on the current neighborhoods of Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach.

ALSO: Why should we care so much about one particular raging anti-Semite? And why did the Brighton Beach Hotel, several thousand tons of it, have to get dragged inland 500 feet?

Music in this episode is the "Manhattan Beach March" by John Philip Sousa!

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach

A map of Coney Island from 1879. Click into it to see the detail of the various train and horsecar lines traveling over bridges to the island. The Oriental Hotel was built in 1880 and is thus not listed. (Find the original here.)

The Manhattan Beach Hotel by postcard

Facing the other way -- the boardwalk of the Manhattan Beach hotel.

And from the water. The hotel was built in 1877 by railroad financier Austin Corbin. He would later scandalize progressive New Yorkers by prohibiting Jewish guests from staying at the resort.

The Oriental Hotel, built in 1880. Click here for another view by George Bradford Brainerd.

An illustration of the Manhattan Beach Hotel in the foreground, the Oriental in the distance. (Courtesy MMCSL)

An illustrated train map for the New York and Manhattan Beach Railway, featuring the two Corbin hotels on the flap. (Courtesy LIRR history)

The Brighton Beach Hotel in 1906. Even as millions streamed into Coney Island to enjoy the frenetic rides and attractions, others could relax here, just a few hundred feet away.

The Brighton Beach was moved -- all 6,000 tons of it -- in 1888 when the beach in front of it eroded. (Click into pic for better view.) Below it, an illustration of the hotel under siege by the sea. (Courtesy Weather blog)

Along today's Brighton Beach Avenue, you can find a host of shops and restaurants harkening to the tastes of old Russia.

The real fun lies along the boardwalk at night, a string of Russian restaurants and clubs where the action sometimes spills out to the beach. Up the street at Brighton Beach Avenue, you can find The National restaurant, the closest a New Yorkern can come to finding Atlantic City style dinner entertainment.

In places, you can almost see the line where William Engeman's Brighton Beach property ends and Austin Corbin's Manhattan Beach/Oriental Hotel property begins. Brighton Beach is distinguished by handsome pre-war apartment buildings; Manhattan Beach is more single-family homes, many recently built and some very ornate.

Sheepshead Bay, north of Manhattan Beach, is named for a fish which no longer swims here.

One of my favorite things in all of Brooklyn -- the Ocean Avenue footbridge. Originally built in 1880, commissioned by Austin Corbin, the pedestrian bridge links the promenade in Manhattan Beach with the one in the neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay. According to Forgotten New York, Corbin kept closing the bridge, worried about 'undesirables' flocking to his precious upper-class hotel.

Kingsborough Community College at the far eastern end of the former island. If the college feels a bit like a military barracks, that's because it was. After Corbin's hotels were demolished, most of the land went to private home developments. But the far tip went to the Coast Guard and later served as a training base for the United States Maritime Service.

Manhattan Beach Park, a seemingly out of place sandy oasis in the quiet neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, is a remnant of the former resorts.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Luna Park forever? Amusement of the past -- and future

The early days of Luna Park, 1905, in all its electric-lit glory. The park opened in 1903. (Pic courtesy Shorpy, click here for full-size image)

Flying overhead, looking down at Luna Park, 1920 (Courtesy U.S. Army Air Forces)

The last days of Luna Park, 1944. A series of fires in the park the next year permanently closed it down. (Courtesy Life Google Images)

For a full history of old Luna Park, read about it here.

In one month a new Luna Park opens (although it seems a little behind schedule to me). See for yourself what it's supposed to look like:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Elephantine Colossus: Brooklyn's most unusual hotel

Above: an 1885 diagram of Elephantine Colossus , more famously known as 'the Elephant Hotel', an actual guest house from the early days of Coney Island.

The hotel opened in 1885, a 12-storey pachyderm with 31 organ-themed guest rooms that faced the ocean and featured an observation deck and a cigar store in its leg.

The press was given a tour when it opened that spring: "The 'Stomach Room' ... is 60 by 35 feet and trinagular in shape. From the stomach room the explorers walked through the elphant's diaphragm and along his liver up into his left lung, where a museum is to be situated during the summer. Then the course was from the lung into the 'Shoulder Room, then up the 'Cheek Room, where they looked through the elephant's right eye out onto the ocean."

If that doesn't seem absurd enough, in the 1890s its oddly shaped rooms served as a brothel. According to Emil R. Salvini, "'Seeing the elephant' became synonymous with an adventure that you would not discuss with your kids."

Like so many things from Coney Island's early days, the hotel burned down, a victim of a fire on Sept. 27, 1896 that also took out the nearby Shaw Channel Chute, a roller coaster that encircled the hotel. It was, not surprisingly, often referred to as the Elephant Scenic Railway.

James Lafferty, the owner of the hotel, also built the New Jersey roadside attraction, Lucy the Elephant, which you can still find hanging out in Margate City.

You can find more info on this intreguing entry into New York's hotel history here.

The two pictures above are courtesy the NYPL Digital Library

Below, the Elephant in perspective (1886):

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bringing news of King Tut (and his curse) to New York

Howard Carter with his very favorite king (courtesy Life Images)

Years after the Steve Martin novelty hit, King Tut mania returns to New York City. The heavily hyped Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs finally opened last week at the Discovery Times Square Exposition, promising rooms of priceless artifacts from the tomb of the young Egyptian king.

British archaeologist Howard Carter opened the tomb of King Tut in February 1923 and spent the year investigating the treasures within, even as legend of the 'curse of King Tut's tomb', fueled by the mysterious death of Carter's financier Lord Carnarvon, electrified the press.

A disagreement with the Egyptian government in 1924 grounded work on the excavation. So in the interim, Carter decided to take news of his discoveries on the road -- and started in New York City.

Arriving on the ocean liner Berengaria in April, Carter took to a round of lectures throughout the city. Carter was caught off guard by his reception, finding himself "celebrated and adulated like a star." And although his proper British diction and inexperience at public speaking turned off a few naysayers, his tales, helpfully illustrated in photos by Met photographer Harry Burton, ultimately helped spark the interest in his discoveries and in Egyptian culture.

He began with with a couple invitation-only discussions at the Waldorf-Astoria for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an unflagging collaborator with Carter for many years. In fact, the Met's assistant curator Arthur Mace worked with Carter at the dig and would allegedly fall victim to the curse in 1928.

Carter then presented to a larger audience in a series of four lectures at Carnegie Hall, the first on April 25, 1924. In a venue better known for dynamic musical performances, Carter was still able to pack in over 2,500 people and a madly fascinated press.

According to the Times: "Step by step, he led them to the point where the cover was lifted off the great stone sarcophagus containing the mummy of the Egyptian monarch interred 3,300 years ago."

For a week in April, dusty Howard Carter became one of the most toasted men in New York City. He spent his days in the city traveling to other venues to share his work -- one at the Museum of Natural History, two separate functions at the Brooklyn Academy of Art, and more appearances at Carnegie. At night, he was feted at private dinners.

He carried that enthusiasm with him throughout the country, hitting stops in New Haven, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Chicago. He even swung by the White House to have tea with President Calvin Coolidge. (The picture at right is Carter taken at one of these locations, May 1924, courtesy LOC)

Carter left New York for England on the Mauretania in July 1924 and eventually resumed work on the tomb. He took with him Met Museum photographer Harry Burton, who documented further exploration of the dig, providing the most startling and iconic images of the world's most famous mummy.

The Met would continue to involve itself with the discoveries, and in the 1970s organized its best-known tour of the United States, which culminated in the Met's own hallways in the winter of 1979.

As for the 'curse' of King Tut, you might be interested in reading a 1978 article in New York Magazine about the Met's 1979 show and the allegations -- by no less than their former director Thomas Hoving -- that the Met might have used Carter's appearance as a 'cover' to obtain stolen art from the tomb.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Gambling behind the Bronze Door: NYC's posh casino

The corner of 5th Avenue and 33rd Street in 1900. The House with the Bronze Door would have stood several feet to the left of this photo. (Courtesy NYPL)

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, on occasional Fridays we'll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

LOCATION: House with the Bronze DoorMurray Hill, 33th Street and 5th Avenue, Manhattan
ERA 1891 -1917 (?)

A tantalizing stretch of New York nightlife history lies in the shadows, illegally operated, often fueled by police bribes -- the opium dens of Chinatown and the speakeasies of the Village and midtown. There were also hundreds of illicit gambling rackets, called 'poolrooms', throughout the city in the late 19th century, usually alongside the seediest of taverns, brothels and ... Naturally, the past time was not looked upon lightly by proper society. "The poolroom keeper, like the proverbial worm," remarked one New York Times article from 1900.

But New York's wealthy elite liked to gamble as well, and there was no need for them to step into such filthy, disreputable places. The rich had their own houses of vice. And one, the House with the Bronze Door, which opened in 1891, would have rivaled the great casinos of the day in terms of its lush presentation.

The fine townhouse at 33 West Thirty-third Street sat right around the corner from the Waldorf-Astoria, so close to respectable Fifth Avenue that people certainly strolled by it with no clue of the entertainments within. Its glorious, defining feature -- and where it gets its name -- was a $20,000 Italianate Renaissance, 15th century bronze door which gave the building the feel of a classic structure, or perhaps a bank vault.

Luxury greeted those who were fortunate to peer behind that door, imported old school finery, from vases to oil paintings on rich wallpapered walls, along hallways in red velvet carpeting, leading to game rooms with European oak tables hosting games of roulette, poker and baccarat. In a place where wealth exchanged hands nightly, it was reflected in the imported banisters and marble bathrooms.

And it wasn't just how it looked, but who designed it to look that way -- none other than Stanford White of the city's most prestigious design firm McKim, Mead and White, a gambling man himself who hired a team of Venician craftsman to give the gambling house its distinctive glamour. The building next door also belonged to the casino, but was less impressively designed; its sole purpose was as an exit in case of police raids.

The owner Frank Farrell* was New York's gambling kingpin, using profits from the Bronze Door to fund over 200 illegal gambling houses throughout the city and grease the palms of police officers to ensure they all stayed open. If that name sounds familiar to sports fans, it's because of a riskier gamble Farrell made in 1903 with his business partner William Stephen Devery. (Yes, the former police chief. See how it used to work back then?) The two purchased the Baltimore Orioles, moved them to New York, lost a lot of money, renamed the team as the New York Yankees and promptly sold them to beer mogul Jacob Ruppert.

Below: Farrell with a Yankees team member in 1912. He would sell off the losing team a few years later. Courtesy Library of Congress

The only people taking risks at the Bronze Door, however, were the rich and well connected clientele. On any given evening you could find the head honchos of Tammany Hall smoking cigars in the corner, or 'Diamond' Jim Brady and his entourage at the upstairs roulette wheel.

According to Lloyd Morris: "The casino was conducted with the quiet decorum of a gentleman's club." These men expected the royal treatment, and they got it. A midnight buffet of lobsters and steaks, open bar of the best liqueurs, fine cigars for a $1 apiece. More importantly, Farrell strictly applied a philosophy of 'the customer is always right'. Unlike many of Farrell's downtown dive, where the house often rigged games and marked cards, the gambling den behind the Bronze Door was straight.

There was little nickel and diming here. It's purported that fifty thousand dollars would hit the tables each night. Gamblers would win, and then lose, vast fortunes each night. As Luc Sante so elegantly states: "... the stories of rich men dropping enormous sums in a single evening kept topping each other, so that the phenomenon almost comes to seem like a version of potlatch, in which wealth is proven by the ability to shed it."

The casino stood in defiance of the law for almost a dozen years thanks to Farrell's connections and the reputation of its clientele. However, given the New York's waxing and waning reform movements, its time would eventually come, and it did so at the hands of one William Travers Jerome, New York's district attorney with a particular bent for reform.

Jerome shut down casinos and poolrooms throughout the city and didn't discriminate, successfully breaching that imposing door and raiding the club in 1908. Although the games were gone, the place remained open for many years afterwards, as a restaurant owned by the Waldorfs according to official sources. What its true nature was in these later years is unknown. The building is completely gone today, replaced with a condo and the shadow of the Empire State Building.

Below: District Attorney Jerome, 1915

*Farrell had other partners in the casino, including racetrack owner Gottfried Walbaum and Billy Burbridge, who later became a hotelier in Havana, Cuba.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

History in the Making: Earth Day Edition

Earth Day 1970: Girls in Union Square take a sweep at pollution. Photo courtesy AP and National Geographic (who has many more pictures of the environmental holiday's first year

John Lindsay's “secular revival meeting,” the first Earth Day, has turned into booming business. [New York Times]

Coney Island's Luna Park will return next month! Or will it? [Kinetic Carnival]

Herald Square in the 1950s, gazing up from Greeley Square. Worth noting are the funky, clownish-looking taxicabs. [Ephemeral New York]

Part two of Forgotten NY's exhaustive, beautiful survey of Tottenville, the southernmost city of New York City. [Forgotten NY]

And President Obama speaks at Cooper Union today on financial reform. Listen to our podcast on Cooper Union [find it here] to discover what other presidents have spoken here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mark Twain and the long century without him

Above: Mark Twain at Delmonico's Restaurant

One hundred years ago today, Mark Twain died of a heart attack in Connecticut, famously the day after Hailey's Comet whisked by the earth.

Although obviously more known for his reminiscences of Missouri and his later life in Hartford, Conn., New York City figured significantly in his career. Twain first came to New York when he was just 18 years old and would live here at times throughout his life, contributing to various newspapers and journals. He certainly had a love-hate relationship with the city.

But did you know Twain's funeral actually took place here, in Manhattan, at the Brick Presbyterian Church at 5th Avenue and 37th Street (at right, pic courtesy NYCAGO)? Both it and the townhouses which surrounded it are all gone. However, the congregation built a new church at Park Avenue and 91st which still stands; the church bell within the new building is from the old structure and bore witness to Twain's funeral.

Twain's body arrived in town before noon that April 23 at Grand Central Station and was somberly escorted uptown to the church, where a crowd had gathered. Upon Twain's casket somebody had thrown a bouquet with the words: ""From one who has read 'Pudd'nhead Wilson.'"

The funeral was clearly the big event of the day. The Associate Press article reports," "Holders of tickets were admitted first. Millionaires and paupers rubbed elbows in the vast crowd that stood outside."

After a series of dramatic eulogies, thousands of people streamed by the open coffin, the writer dressed in his recognizable white coat and pants. The doors were closed at 10 p.m., and Twain's body was transported to its final resting place -- Elmira, New York, a much-beloved summer respite for Twain in his youth and the place where he met his wife.

Finally, here's one humorous recollection of New York City by Mark Twain, published in a letter for a San Francisco newspaper in 1867. Who hasn't felt this way before?:

"There is something about this ceaseless buzz, and hurry, and bustle, that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy, and saps from him all capacity to enjoy anything or take a strong interest in any matter whatever--a something which impels him to try to do everything, and yet permits him to do nothing.

He is a boy in a candy-shop--could choose quickly if there were but one kind of candy, but is hopelessly undetermined in the midst of a hundred kinds. A stranger feels unsatisfied, here, a good part of the time. He starts to a library; changes, and moves toward a theatre; changes again and thinks he will visit a friend; goes within a biscuit-toss of a picture-gallery, a billiard-room, a beer cellar and a circus, in succession, and finally drifts home and to bed, without having really done anything or gone anywhere. He don't go anywhere because he can't go everywhere, I suppose."

Below: Mark Twain in a portrait taken by Matthew Brady (although I believe the photograph was taken in Brady's D.C. studio, not in New York)

By the way, here's a pretty extraordinary tale from New York Press by Craig Fehrman about the fight to save Mark Twain's Fifth Avenue home from demolition.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Goldman Sachs: things were much simpler then

The villain du jour of the latest financial scandal is investment firm Goldman Sachs, accused of fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission for misleading investors on the shady details of certain 'exotic' mortgage-backed securities.

The magnitude of Goldman Sachs' ambitions over the past 140 years -- its seismic up and downs, through booms and recessions -- belie its modest beginnings in a basement office next to a coal chute on a small block in downtown Manhattan. It's doubtful that its founder, Marcus Goldman (at right), would recognize his own company today. Sitting upright on a single stool, well groomed in a Prince Albert jacket, the uniform of New York's financial class, Goldman prepared to leap into a new venture, the future uncertain. His most important business accessory was a tall, silk hat.

The roots of Goldman Sachs lies within the increasing numbers of German immigrants who came to the United States starting in the late 1840s. There were 100,000 German in New York by 1860 with their own newspapers, schools and churches influencing the city's cultural identity. Among them were publishers, musicians, bakers, merchants. And lots of bankers.

Early German financiers like Joseph Seligman (later known as the broker of railroad baron Jay Gould) were already established on Wall Street by the time young schoolteacher Marcus Goldman arrived here from Frankfurt in 1848. He started a family in Philadelphia, his wife Bertha employed as seamstress for society ladies while Marcus himself peddled from a horse-drawn cart, later opening his own clothing store.

But it was soon time for some reinvention. Closing his store, in 1869 the Goldmans moved to New York at his wife's insistence, residing in a Murray Hill brownstone among the families of new wealth. Marcus opened a small business on 30 Pine Street, a small sign "Marcus Goldman, Banker and Broker" barely noticable among the counting houses, book stores and sidewalk trade made up the street parallel to Wall Street.

Goldman's office was modest indeed, furnished only with a stool and a desk, employing a young apprentice and, according to Stephen Birmingham, "a wizened part-time bookkeeper (who worked afternoons for a funeral parlor)."

It didn't matter, because Goldman was constantly on his feet anyway. His unique trade was as a broker of IOUs, the at-this-time new busness of commercial paper, transacting between the small merchants of the jewelry and leather trades and the uptown banks. Wandering down Maiden Lane, Goldman would visit the mostly Jewish tradesmen of the area, cultivate their trust and buy their debt at a set rate of interest, shoving notes into his silk hat until it bulged. According to Lisa Endlich, "It was said that a banker's success each day could be measured by the 'altitude of his hat'."

Single-handedly, Goldman was making $5 million a year, keeping his family in finery and a growing number of servants. By 1880, the firm was raking in $30 million. Two years later, he was able to expand his business further by bringing his son-in-law into the fold -- Samuel Sachs, son of a Bavarian saddlemaker, who also happened to be friends with one Philip Lehman, whose firm the Lehman Brothers would frequent partner with Goldman's firm. (And would, 128 years later, file for bankrupsy.)

The new Goldman Sachs company allowed the two participating families to thrive in New York society. And soon, the lucrative firm would no longer be just a family affair, inviting in partners to become Goldman Sachs and Co. in 1885.

Samuel would take over for Marcus at his death in 1904 and would steer the company's fortunes until his retirement in 1928, a year before the start of the Great Depression. Its fortunes at that point would be guided by Sidney Weinberg, a former janitor who climbed the corporate later to head the firm in 1930, aiming beyond the business dealings once stuff in Goldman's hat and towards the wave of the future: investment banking.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Bronx Zoo: the tale of NYC's biggest animal house

Postcard of the elephant house, now the central Zoo Center -- and home today to a baby rhino below. (Courtesy NYPL)

PODCAST New York City's most exotic residents inhabit hundreds of leafy acres in the Bronx at the once-named New York Zoological Park. Sculpted out of the former DeLancey family estate and tucked next to the Bronx River, the Bronx Zoo houses hundreds of different species from across the globe, many endangered and quite foreign to most American zoos. The well meaning attempts of its founders, however, have sometimes been mired in controversy. The highlight of the show -- and the institution's lowest moment -- is the sad tale of Ota Benga, the pygmy once put on display at the zoo in 1906!

ALSO: We take you on a tour of the zoo grounds, unfurling over 110 years of historical trivia, from the ancient Rocking Stone to the tale of Gunda, the Indian elephant who may also have been a poet.

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

The Bowery Boys: The Bronx Zoo


Well-dressed families arrive at the south zoo entrance in 1911. (NYPL)

The aquatic bird house, one of the first buildings completed when the zoo opened in 1899. Another building from this date, the House of Reptiles, still stands and you can see it further below. (NYPL)

Bears behind fences. Zoo planners used Bronx Park's natural topography to build enclosures into the very rocks themselves.

The mysterious Rocking Stone, next to the Rocking Stone Restaurant. Today there's a World of Darkness exhibit there (presently closed to visitors).

Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo. The Congolese pygmy once lived at the Museum of Natural History (where he was forced to wear a duck costume!) before being scandalously exhibited for a short time in the Bronx Zoo monkey house in 1906.

Part of his allure to shocked New Yorkers were his filed teeth and his size (4'11').

Pandora, the zoo's first panda bear, from 1938. Pandas never lived for very long at the Bronx Zoo, and they stopped regularly keeping them. Pandas Ling Ling and Yun Yun were briefly housed here in the 1980s.

The elephant exhibit, circa the 1960s. The Bronx Zoo's population of elephants has dwindled to just three animals. Very soon there may be none. (Photo courtesy Life Images, Nina Leen photgrapher)

From the same time period as the picture above, but pretty timeless. The sea lions have been the centerpiece of the zoo since it opened in 1899. (Nina Leen)

Some pics from my trip last week are below. The zoo is one of the greatest places to see the spectacle of the Bronx River. (Click into them to see the detail.)

The Butterfly Garden is one of the newer exhibitions, an intimate greenhouse featuring dozens of varieties of butterflies flying all around you (and sometimes, even on you).

American allligators, the small, unthreatening kind. For something more severe, visit the nile crocodile in the Madagascar exhibit.

A display of some of the zoo's marvelous, cheeky fontage.

The House of Reptiles, one of the zoo's oldest structures, from 1899.

The brutalist wonder that is the House of Birds.

A young female gorilla, one of several who look on at gawking zoo visitors in curiousity and confusuion.

From the Madagascar exhibit:

You can find a baby Asian one-horned rhinoceros named Krishnan at the Zoo Center.

And finally, the Bronx Zoo movie star Andy the orangutan in his feature debut Andy's Animal Alphabet: