Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mural grande: War bonds in Grand Central Terminal



This gigantic mural display -- at the time, some said, the 'world's greatest photo mural' and I have little reason to doubt -- hung over the heads of commuters in the main hall at Grand Central, debuting with great fanfare (and a special radio broadcast) in December 1941. The 85-foot tall mural, featuring photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration, celebrates the most valuable traits of the United States: "the fertile U.S. land, the productiveness of U.S. industry, the future welfare of U.S. children."

Ostensibly a device to sell war bonds, the mural was keenly placed considering that thousands of servicemen and women departed from Grand Central. In fact, a couple years later, Grand Central hosted a lounge specially catered to uniformed men.

Below: workers scramble to install the massive display before rush hour.

Another view of it here

Photos by Arthur Rothstein (LOC)

Monday, August 30, 2010

'Mad Men' notes: Naked truths about New York nudism

Every Monday I'll try and check in with the Mad Men episode from the night before and focus in on one or two historical references made on the show. Spoilers aplenty, so read no further if you don't want to know....

While the inebriated men of Sterling Cooper Draper Price were accepting Clio Awards at the Waldorf=Astoria, poor Peggy was stuck in a hotel room with a pretentious creative director going over ideas for a campaign for Vicks cough drops. Rizzo, the director, claims to be a nudist, or at least to sympathize with the cause. (Since the impetus of the conversation revolves around looking at a Playboy Magazine, I would say he's probably a poseur and a faux-nudist.) Goading Peggy, she calls his bluff, strips off her clothes in a sign of liberation and casually settles back to brain storm.

By 1965, the nudism movement (or naturism) was firmly established in America, its proponents gathering in secluded camp grounds for decades, often near urban areas where its philosophies could be more easily disseminated, usually (but not always) among bohemians or extreme practitioners of physical fitness. Rizzo's casual -- but ultimately timid -- embrace of a nudist philosophy was certainly not unusual by the mid-1960s and would be popularly corrupted in the practice of campus streaking.

The roots of the American nudist movement start in New York City among a group of German immigrant intellectuals, bringing over a well-established discipline from Europe. Kurt Barthel began the American League for Physical Culture in New York in 1929 as a straight-laced, non-lurid celebration of the human body; as an extreme corollary to the temperance movement, Barthel advocated clean living and eschewed alcohol.

At left: In the days before nudist organizations, even racy sculpture like that atop the old Madison Square Garden could scandalize discreet New Yorkers.

From the little I could find on the early days of this organization, they had their first clothes-off gathering on Labor Day 1929 in upstate New York with seven participants (both men and women), but the organization held meetings in the city, at a Tenderloin establishment called the Michelob Cafe on 28th Street. (NOTE: I can only find evidence of a place called this from various nudist literature and not from any independent source.)

A guidebook to the discipline, called 'The New Gymnosophy' (or 'Nudism In Modern Life') written by Turkish doctor Maurice Parmelee, could be found in certain bookstores in New York, but was naturally sold behind the counter. Although a dry, philosophical text, the subject would have scandalized book buyers! In 'Gymnosophy', Parmelee extolled the virtues of the nude lifestyle, recounting the health risks of clothing and mental strains of bodily shame while being sure to separate these philosophies from common prurient thoughts.

Parmelee writes: "Sex feeling and curiosity...characterize practically all adults who enter the gymnosophic movement. After becoming habituated, sex stimulus through vision usually falls to normal and the initial curiosity is satisfied. [Excerpted in the book 'Studies in human sexuality' by Suzanne G. Frayser]

Interestingly, this sociologist and intellectual nudist is perhaps best known as being the author of America's 'first criminology textbook'.

Upstate campgrounds were fine (and far away from disapproving eyes) during the summer; but in the winter, the American League for Physical Culture met up a few times a month in a Manhattan gymnasium, and that put its naked aesthetic at odds with New York's indecency laws. In 1931, one such meeting was raided by the police and Barthel was thrown into jail. In 1932 Barthel founded the Sky Farms nudist colony in Basking Ridge, NJ, the nation's oldest continually operating nudist facility.



Above: If Don Draper were a nudist. (Photo from Martin Klasch)

By then, nudism philosophies had attracted other New Yorkers, including two librarians from the New York Public Library, Herman and Katherine Soshinski, who started up their own group -- American Gymnosophical Association -- and their own nudist colony, the Rock Lodge Club in northern New Jersey, still active today. (Who knew there were so many outlets for nudism in New Jersey?)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The History of New York Public Transportation: Recap



Just because it's underground, doesn't mean you shouldn't dress up. It is train travel, after all. (June 1959, photographer Stan Wayman, courtesy Life Google images)

Thanks for listening in on our several-part series of podcasts on the history of New York City public transportation. We're moving on to other topics -- although I'm not quite done with the subway (more on that next week).

You can download any of the shows from iTunes or other podcasting services, or straight from the links below:

Part One: Staten Island Ferry
A look at the earliest forms of transportation in New York harbor, with a focus on the early ferry services from Staten Island
Blog: Staten Island Ferry, its story, from sail to steam
Download here

Part Two: New York's Elevated Railroads
Starting with the introduction of horse-drawn streetcars and omnibuses to the innovation of elevated trains running along four avenues in Manhattan and in various parts of Brooklyn
Blog: New York's Elevated Railroads; Journey to a spectacular world of steam trains along the avenues
Download here

Part Three: Cable Cars, Trolleys and Monorails
Electrified trolley cars became the most common form of travel in New York starting in the 1890s and into the new century. Find out why they succeeded and why two other forms -- cable cars and monorails -- did not.
Blog: Cable cars, trolleys and monorails; Moving around on New York's transportation options
Download here

Part Four: New York City Subway, Part 1: Birth of the IRT
The story of the very first subway which went nowhere (Alfred Ely Beach and his pneumatic tube train) and the one that eventually did (August Belmont and the Interborough Rapid Transit).
Blog: The New York City Subway and the Creation of the IRT
Download here

Part Five: New York City Subway, Part 2: By The Numbers (And Letters)
The surprisingly difficult attempt to expand the subway system and the curious public/private partnership which got it done. Plus: the history of the future of the Second Avenue subway line
Blog: Modern history of the New York Subway: Expansion from the 1-2-3, A-B-C, Second Avenue and beyond
Download here

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A History of Subway Cinema: From musical daydreams to gritty roller-skating gangs and underground alien bugs



Above: 'Dames' on a Train: Keeler and Powell dream of the innocent days

The subway doesn't immediately come to mind as a photogenic movie star, but in fact, the various tunnels and stations of the New York City Subway have appeared as the backdrop for hundreds of movies. Its route diversity -- from deep under midtown to elevations above the outer boroughs -- and its longevity have allowed filmmakers to turn the subway into a rolling sound stage. I recently binged on a variety of subway films from several eras and noticed a definite pattern in their development:

The First Subway Movie: I posted this just a couple weeks ago, but the subway makes its first appearance at the inception of the very first IRT line, with a six-minute short (they were all short back then) "New York Subway" filmed by the Edison company, which was simply a camera following behind the first subway from Union Square to Grand Central. The film's cinematographer, Billy Bitzer, went on to innovate standard filming techniques, like the soft focus and the fade out, and made his reputation working with D.W. Griffith on The Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance.



The Musical Subway: Fiction films wouldn't be shot on-locaton in the subway until the 1940s, but that didn't stop Hollywood from transforming it (via a backlot) into a romantic set piece. The most unusual of these is certainly the 1934 hokey gangbuster Dames, featuring an exotic dance number by Busby Berkeley as psychedelic as any 60s counter-culture movie. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler put on a wacky show -- they're always puttin' on a show back then -- featuring a crowded ride on an uptown train. Powell falls asleep and his dreams burst into hundreds of chorus girls. BONUS: Earlier in the film, the pair woo each other on the Staten Island ferry with the song "I Only Have Eyes For You" (making its debut).

ALSO: Although it's an elevated train -- not a subway -- I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that King Kong (1933) didn't much enjoy them rumbling down Sixth Avenue either.

The Romantic Subway: 'On The Town' (1949) is a candy-colored, on-location race through New York nostalgia, with our three dancing sailors skimming through the city's greatest landmarks. A subway ride provides the impetus for the central romance, as Gene Kelly falls for a poster of Miss Turnstiles (a play on the mid-century's quaint beauty pageant contest Miss Subways). Daydreaming similar to 'Dames' produces an equally dance-filled response (watch it here).


The Dark Subway: I'm not sure why more film noirs weren't set on the subway -- that would be remedied in the 1970s -- especially when they're as juicy as the 1953 Pickup on South Street. The opening scene is one of its most famous, as an eerie Richard Widmark hovers over ditzy Jean Peters in a crowded subway car, gingerly relieving her purse of what proves to be a very troublesome item. From there, the action shifts to the piers of South Street -- nearly unrecognizable, not a mall in sight -- before submerging back into the subway tunnels for a spectacular finish. Here's a clip of the opening scene:



ALSO: With intrigue rumbling below, even the breeze from a passing subway train could elicit a sexual response as a defenseless young woman in a white dress stands above a grating in the 1955 comedy The Seven Year Itch.

The Hostage Train: That glowing sheen of the Berkeley musicals -- even the somewhat clean shadows of '50s crime dramas -- would slowly fade by the 1960s, along with the conditions of the subway itself. Presaging a rich future as a moving hellcar of violence and death, the 1967 film The Incident presents a group of unwitting passengers terrorized by two young, stereotypical '60s sadists. Surreptitiously filmed and very low budget, 'The Incident' would introduce the subway car-as-trap motif that would fuel the 1974 thriller The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3 and open its possibilities for urban horror.

Vengeance Underground: The movies hardly sugar-coated New York City's hard times in the 1970s and rendered the subway into a place where anybody, at any time, could be shot, stabbed and assaulted. In Death Wish (1974), the subway is one of several locales of seething, bald-faced criminal activity, but it's so dangerous that Charles Bronson goes down there twice to pick off bad guys. In the universe of this unsubtle action flick, you could be mugged and raped five, six, seven times a day, so best to be proactive and pick them off before they get you. Ten years later, Bernhard Goetz would reinvent this hyper, fictional fantasy by actually doing it.



ALSO: The greatest movie ever made using the subway, The French Connection (1971), actually has its most notorious moment that runs underneath an elevated line in Brooklyn, a breathless chase scene filmed famously without the city's permission.



The Fantasy Detour: The reputation of the New York subway system was so poor in the 1970s that depictions went from the ultra-realistic to the absurd without missing a stop. In The Warriors (1979), the train becomes a virtual yellow-brick-row for a costumed Coney Island gang escaping a host of absurd villains. The Union Square subway station holds one of their deadliest challenges: suspendered, roller-skating pretty boy toughs with feathered hair. It's only a tiny step into pure fantasy and an actual yellow brick road in The Wiz (1978) with a creepy collection of gangly puppets, a pair of Scarecrow-eating trash cans, and living subway posts most certainly not designed by Heins & Lafarge.

Local Lines: While the mainstream movie depictions would get even more outrageous, the growth of independent filmmaking and thoughtful, locally filmed productions in the 1980s depicted the subway in more realistic tones -- as a confusing place to lose a child in Gloria (1980), as an underground wild west for graffiti artists and hip hop dancers in Wild Style (1983) and Beat Street (1984, in the clip below), and as a restless throwback to film noir in King of New York (1990).



The Sequel Subway: With the advent of the Hollywood blockbuster came a restoration of the subway's reputation -- sorta. The subway in the cinematic 1980s and 1990s was still dangerous, but in wild, sensational and very unrealistic ways. The tunnels underneath Manhattan harbored rivers of ectoplasmic ooze (Ghostbusters 2, 1989), a train booby-trapped with explosives (Die Hard With A Vengeance, 1995), a supernatural danger zone of runaway trains and alien warriors (Superman 2 AND Superman 4), and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (who hole up in that abandoned City Hall subway station).

Midnight Horrors: As the subways became safer to ride, the usual tropes of knife-wielding thugs and rapists no longer made sense as objects of menace. Soon the subways were filled with supernatural beings, starting with the relatively sedate Jason from Friday The 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan and slowly elevating into humanoid insects (Mimic, 1997), monsters from the sea laying large lizard eggs (the Godzilla remake, 1998), and humanoid insect monsters from the sea (Cloverfield, 2008)

ALSO: For a more intriguing take on subway horror, I recommend Jacob's Ladder (1990) which uses the Brooklyn Bergen Street Station to surreal effect.

The Worst Subway Depiction Ever: Of course, films are allowed to manipulate train lines, distort direction, even put trains next to landmarks that are, in reality, miles away. It's fantasy. But somewhere out there in the vast universe of fiction there is a vague, undefined point where a film steps over the line, and the movie which does this most shamelessly is the otherwise great Spider-Man 2, which inserts a vast, fantasy elevated R line through the heart of Manhattan, rebuilding what the city so painstakingly tore down in the 1940s and 50s.



21st Century Redux: In the last forty years, Hollywood has had a nasty habit of replicating itself, and that goes for subway movies, with rehashed old themes like vigilantism (in 2007's The Brave One) and even remakes the older films, like the sorry remake to The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. Incidentally, that remake's two stars have two important subway films on their resumes -- John Travolta in one of the greatest New York films of all time, Saturday Night Fever, and Denzel Washington, in an uncredited, unceremonious moment in Death Wish.

The MTA is more than happy to increase its exposure in future films. All you need, according to their website, is "a minimum $2 million general liability insurance policy; a $2 million railroad protective insurance policy; and proof of Workmen's Compensation."

I know I've missed a few goods/bad ones (Money Train, The Yards) but those'll be for a future post...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

History in the Making: Psychedelic Tunnels Edition



Best unlaid plans: (Above) The aborted additions to the New York City subway system, illustrated on the coolest subway map ever, from 1968. [Map from Second Avenue Sagas]

Exploring, with old maps: The remains of old trolley tracks, the home of Louis Armstrong, and the memories of old North Beach amusement park. [Forgotten New York]

Hoofin' it: Remembering Death Avenue, the west side cowboys, and the origins of the High Line. [Ephemeral New York]

Who Goes to Sardi's?: Brooks of Sheffield does. [Lost City]

Begging for improvement: The current mess with the Long Island Railroad recalls a near-disastrous blaze at Chambers Street from a few years ago which underscored the desperate need for equipment upgrades. [Second Avenue Sagas]

Skyline shenanigans: Is the Empire State Building being threatened by a younger, slimmer upstart being proposed for a spot just a couple blocks west? [City Room]

Monday, August 23, 2010

'Mad Men' notes: Konnichiwa, New York City!

Every Monday I'll try and check in with the Mad Men episode from the night before and focus in on one or two historical references made on the show. Spoilers aplenty, so read no further if you don't want to know....

New York's fascination with Japanese culture has never been because of a particularly large population, especially compared to the city's other Asian communities. A hearty cluster of Japanese establishments in St. Mark's in the East Village notwithstanding, there has never been a neighborhood of the size and shape of Chinatown or Koreatown. According to the 2000 census, just over 26,000 people identified as Japanese American, with less than 20,000 foreign-born Japanese residing here.

Instead, Japanese influence in the city has been felt through its wealth and through the success of individual businessmen and women. That's where wrestler Hiroaki 'Rocky' Aoki comes in.

On last night's 'Mad Men', Don Draper must weather some peculiar cultural differences and the prejudices of his own associates to snag a new account, the Japanese motorcycle maker Honda. (See the bottom of this post for an authentic 1965 advertisement for a Honda motor scooter.) In that frame of mind, he takes his date to one particular new midtown restaurant, Benihana, where Japanese food is prepared on grills in front of the patrons by daredevil chefs. A lively and noisy atmosphere, hardly romantic, his date notes.

Benihana was the brainchild of Aoki (at right), a wrestler who qualified for Japan's 1960 Olympic wrestling team (he didn't compete) and came to America in his early 20s touring the wrestling circuit. He expressed a decidedly entrepreneurial streak, moving to New York in 1963 and he paying his way through business school by, among other jobs, operating a Mister Softee ice cream truck in Harlem.

His curious idea for an eatery -- which brought the chef and steel grill into the dining room, preparing steaks and seafood for dizzied diners -- was named after his parent's own restaurant in Tokyo (Benihana, meaning red safflower). He bought out the lease of an unsuccessful Chinese restaurant at 61 West 56th Street* and opened Benihana Of Tokyo on May 1964.

The first restaurant was a tiny affair, much too small -- four tables -- for the theatricality he envisioned. And New Yorkers were at first confused, even intimidated. Of the few New York Japanese dining spots that existed, they were mainly for Japanese people; the embrace of sushi culture was many years in the future. Here, however, was a bold, dramatic and certainly exotic display of Japanese pomp, serving dishes that seemed somewhat ordinary.

It might had faded like so many midtown culinary novelties if not for the New York Herald-Tribune popular food writer Clementine Paddleford who, late in her career, threw Aoki a rave review. Within months, those four tables were hardly enough to meet demand, and Aoki opened a second location a few blocks east.

Benihana, of course, would be a concept suited for expansion, hitting Chicago and San Francisco before the end of the decade and soon swelling to dozens of locations all over the United States.

Aoki, who died in 2008, was quite an extravagant character, a Lothario (throughout his life, he famously had numerous wives, mistresses and girlfriends) and an avid adventurer, racing speedboats and reportedly even flying a hot air balloon over the Pacific Ocean in the early 1980s. He and Don Draper would have gotten along famously.

*The restaurant moved down the street to its present location at 47 W. 56th Street in 1973.
Pic above courtesy Benihana

For more on New York's curious history with the Japanese, you might like to check out the brand new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York called Samurai In New York: The First Japanese Delegation, 1860, taking a look at an entourage of 70 samurai who held court in the city 150 years ago.

And finally, courtesy of ADclassix (visit their page to order a print):

Friday, August 20, 2010

Modern history of the New York City Subway: Expansion from the 1,2,3, the A, B, C, Second Avenue and beyond



The subway in 1951, a bevy of new lines thanks to the unification of the IRT, the BMT and the IND, a consolidation we live with today. (Pic courtesy of NYC Subway)

PODCAST The amazing New York City subway system travels hundreds of miles under the earth and elevated through the boroughs. In this episode, we let you in on how it went from one long tunnel in 1904 to the busiest subway on earth.

This is our last episode in our series BOWERY BOYS ON THE GO, and we end it on the expansion of the New York City subway. Find out how some as innocuous sounding as the 'Dual Contracts' actually become one of the most important events in the city's history, creating new underground rounds into Brooklyn, the Bronx and (wondrously!) and finally into Queens.

Then we'll talk about the city's IND line, which completes our modern track lines and gives the subway its modern sheen. After listening to this show, you won't look at the Herald Square subway station the same way again.

ALSO: Bernhard Goetz, Mayor Jimmy Walker and the future present history of the Second Avenue Subway!

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: New York City Subway, Part 2: Subway by the Numbers (and Letters)



The Dual Contracts let the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) to expand its lines and opened Manhattan to Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT). And it allowed both companies to extend into Queens for the first time. Below is a simplified map from 1920 of extensions into midtown Manhattan and Queens. (Map below is from New York City Subway, the most invaluable resource on the web about subway history.)



The mean tracks of the subway during the 1970s. The price went up, ridership went down, and the whole line fell into disrepair. In John Conn's photograph below, a destitute station looks abandoned. (You can see a whole gallery of Conn's subway photographs at the Daily Beast.)




Bernhard Goetz, below at center, was labeled the 'subway vigilante' after shooting assailants on the subway in 1984, highlighting how dangerous New York's subway had become. (Photo from here)

A map of the too-long-in-the-making teal Second Avenue Subway (the T line):


For a more visceral immersion into subway history, visit the New York Transit Museum and walk through the old subway cars contained in an actual, abandoned station. They also have an annex in Grand Central Terminal

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Brooklyn's subway origins, at an insane intersection



The first subway into Brooklyn -- not a product of Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), but of an extension of the original Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) -- terminated at what is today the Atlantic Avenue-Pacific Street Station, at the crossroads of several streets and a hub for the Long Island Railroad and a station for the Fifth Avenue Elevated. Although I doubt you would guess its importance by visiting the Chuck E Cheese or the Target store that presently inhabits the Atlantic Terminal Mall sitting around here today.

From another angle, in 1914 (pic courtesy NY Subway), you can see the interchange between several transportation methods, including horsecars and a line of trolleys:



That decorative control house and former subway entrance standing out so conspicuously at the crossroads was designed by Heins and Lafarge, and its ornate design is similar to that of the Bowling Green IRT control house at the foot of Manhattan; in fact both were constructed at the same time to serve the same line.

This intersection of Fourth, Flatbush and Atlantic avenues was once known as Times Plaza, named in what I can only think of as wishful thinking after the Brooklyn Daily Times in emulation of Manhattan's own Times newspaper plaza. The Daily Times folded less than thirty years later however. The entrance is lovely -- and was renovated in the last decade -- but was not very effective in the day, sitting as it does in the middle of a very bustling intersection.


Pic courtesy sphoto30 at Flickr

During World War I, a large electric sign hung over the plaza brightly illuminating the words FOOD WILL WIN THE WAR - DON'T WASTE IT.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What famous person did you see on the subway today?



Behold, Meryl Streep on the subway, August 1981

Streep lived in SoHo at the time this picture was taken. Perhaps she was on her way to do a little promo work for 'The French Lieutenant's Woman', which hit theaters in September?

Streep has aged gracefully. The subway? Needed a whole lotta work done....

Oh, and you might like this profile in the September 1981 issue of New York magazine, where she says, "In SoHo and Chinatown I can wander around and nobody knows who I am. Uptown, people stare and I get self-conscious. In a drugstore, buying a box of Tampax, I get self-conscious."

(Pic courtesy LIFE Google images)

Monday, August 16, 2010

'Mad Men' notes: Swanky steaks and a market soiree


A postcard from Jim Downey's showing a plethora of theatrical faces who frequented the place.

Every Monday I'll try and check in with the Mad Men episode from the night before and focus in on one or two historical references made on the show. Spoilers aplenty, so read no further if you don't want to know....

There were two long-gone destinations used in last night's episode of 'Mad Men' to delineate the old and the new, contrasting the square with the hip.

Two former ad rivals Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove bury the hatchet over a meal at Jim Downey's Steak House, a dapper theater-district hangout at 705 Eighth Avenue (at 44th Street), started in the late 1950s by an Irish immigrant who won big at the horse races one day and decided to open a restaurant (as the legend goes).

Downey's, very much in the mold of classic midtown eateries like Sardi's and Toot Shor's, was considered more a destination for theater crowds than the professional set, so much so that its dining rooms had theatrical names (like the Backstage Room) and you could frequently find a theater star or two having Irish coffees at the bar, possibly standing by writer Brendan Behan, also a regular. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall sat at a booth very much like the one depicted on the show, discussing women and literature.

The restaurant was closed by the early '80s, taken over by a Cajun restaurant, although Downey's sons opened steak houses in other parts of the city.

Meanwhile, Peggy Olsen got herself invited to a happening, or rather, an "I don't even know what to call it" at old Washington Market (pictured below), the once lively indoor marketplace downtown. By 1956, however, the vendors -- at one time, over 800 of them -- had moved out (most up to the Hunts Point in the Bronx) and the forlorn shell of the building sat abandoned. It was eventually ripped down in 1967 to build the World Trade Center.


(Picture from Shorpy)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Subway Tavern: 'greasy' church-operated bar alternative



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: Subway Tavern
Bleecker and Mulberry, Manhattan
In operation 1904-05

The early planners of the New York City subway negotiated that very first route through some of the city's mostly heavily populated areas, those obviously in need of rapid transit. The locations of the first underground stations were based on the amount of available space at key cross streets. If you happened to own property along the route and specifically near a planned station, you would have hit the proverbial jackpot in 1904, the year the subway opened.

And so begins the tale of the Subway Tavern, at the corner of Bleecker and Mulberry, which tried to monopolize on this lottery of suddenly-valuable real estate with the worst idea in the history of New York City nightlife -- a moral tavern.

Like all religious leaders, the Bishop Henry Codman Potter of the Episcopal Diocese of New York was gravely concerned with the evils of alcohol upon the poorest classes and the newest arrivals from Ellis Island. Most of the temperance stripe preferred to hit areas most soaked in booze -- particularly the Bowery -- with bibles in hand and moral example on display. Often to no avail and to the occasional danger to the proselytizers themselves.

Potter (pictured below), a rector at Grace Church, thought outside the box. His own ideas for social reform were radical for the time but some (like daycare in churches) seem standard and even obvious today. Although he lived rather luxuriously -- his stately home at 89th and Riverside Drive is still standing -- he made a point, even after his ascension to bishop, to work regularly in poor neighborhoods.

He was often a voice for labor groups and consistently berated Tammany Hall for its abuses. Nobody could say the man's heart was not in the right place. Which made it all the more shocking when he decided one day that the Episcopal Church should open a tavern.

Since it seemed unlikely that people would stop drinking entirely, went his theory, why not found an establishment where proper and gentlemanly drinking would be encouraged? A place where the staff could monitor and guide patrons to more responsible imbibing.

Potter found the perfect location, a former saloon owned by future Fire Commissioner Joseph 'Oak' Johnson, at the corner of Bleecker and Mulberry streets and sitting right in front of a new subway entrance. Although the trains would not run for another few months, the new experiment was dubbed the Subway Tavern.

Potter christened the new tavern on August 2, 1904, opened with $10,000 in funds from distinguished citizens, including money from U.S. representative Herbert Parsons and former lacrosse star Elgin Gould. In case anybody was unclear of the intentions of the unusual establishment, a holy doxology was performed to an enrapt, standing-room-only audience.

The Subway Tavern was to operate like a respectable upper-class club, except for poorer folks. "I belong to many clubs which I can go," remarked the bishop, "but where can the toiler go?" Where, indeed!

Potter honestly believed the Subway Tavern could be jovial and free-spirited without becoming debaucherous. The front room, adored with a sign 'To The Water Wagon' playfully overhead, would be open to both sexes "with a 'sanitary' soda water fountain where beer will be served to women." [source] Men would have a private room behind some swinging saloon doors in the back.

As the bar was funded by donations, the 'evils' of profit were eliminated. And thus, reasoned Potter, bartenders would not encourage patrons to drink. Men and women could come to converse, read a newspaper and have one -- maybe two -- drinks. Employees were to closely watch the intoxication levels of customers; if one even looked tipsy -- if say, somebody appeared to be enjoying their drink a wee too much -- they would be cut off. Healthy food would also be on hand downstairs to soak up any amoral toxins in the belly.

As the New York Times lightly mocked, "The benevolent bartenders ... are anguished when they are compelled to serve whisky, and ... dimple with joy when sarsaparilla pop is ordered."

Naturally, many Episcopalians were not too thrilled having their church associated with a tavern just a couple blocks from the Bowery. Many dubbed it 'The Bishop's Inn'. The experiment made national headlines and was greeted with remarks like those from Pittsburgh pastor J.T. McCrory: "I supposed the 'Subway Tavern' was called that because it is an underground way to hell." (Several accounts I read seemed to believe the tavern was actually in the subway.)

Another preacher called it a "low down, greasy Bowery saloon." Shocked clergy flocked from other cities to gander at this oddity and register their opinion to the press. "I do not think it will turn the tide of drunkenness," said one stunned clergyman, "nor will it solve or diminish the curse of rum."

The naysayers were right. The Subway Tavern turned out to be a horribly ill-conceived idea, and its flaws were magnified several months after the subway opened in October 1904. When a reporter for the Advance visited the pub in September 1905, they found the exterior covered in 'tattered', 'stained' advertisements, a main barroom empty and most surfaces covered in flies.

Presumably, patrons quickly grew tired of being stately. As the Advance so plainly stated, "The liquor sold at the Subway does not make men sober. There is no method by which a young man learning the drink habit may not go elsewhere to complete his ruin."

Within days of the Advance's visit to the Subway Tavern, the holy drinking establishment closed up and reopened as a no-pretenses 'out and out saloon'. Bishop Potter died just a few years later with a mostly unblemished record.

Many years later, the structure that once housed the Subway Tavern was ingraciously replaced with this building.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Welcome to the 'subway art museum': The early battle against 'disfiguring' advertisements in the subway



Protect this station from the rueful blight of subway advertisements! (Pic NYPL)

There once was a time, believe it or not, when the city was so concerned for the aesthetic beauty of the subway that an early controversy broke regarding the scandalous inclusion of advertisements in subway stations.

The stations designed for those very first subway rides in 1904 were dictated by the guidelines of the City Beautiful movement, an early-century attempt by American cities to best the beauties of Europe and promote civility through architecture and urban design. Overseeing the process then was the Municipal Art Society, formed just ten years prior by Richard Morris Hunt and bolstered by rich patrons and grateful city involvement. (In fact, one of the Society's first jobs was covering the ceiling of City Hall with an ornate mural.)

Keeping the subway so very 'city beautiful' was crucial to their plans, as the original route ran the length of Manhattan and would unify those tasteful civic ideals. So imagine the absolute mortification one day when a dignified Society member stepped down into a subway station to see a colorful advertisement for a corset.(Such as the 1904 advertisement above.)

Within days the opening of the first subway on October 27, 1904, private companies began descending into stations, hanging advertisements in crude frames upon the tile, in many cases damaging the freshly made walls. As standard paper materials and cheap tin framers were used, the ads quickly deteriorated, creating a drab and unappealing mess. "New York's $35,000,000 subway, instead of looking like the immaculate place for which the city spent its money, is beginning to look like a billboard in need of the billposters," claimed the New York Sun.

According to the Nov. 11, 1904, edition of the Tribune, a "peculiar clause" in the original IRT contract allowed for the company to allow "unobjectionable advertising" on the walls.

However, to the Municipal Art Society, no advertising was unobjectionable, and they threatened to sue the IRT.  The governing body in the middle, the Rapid Transit Commission, was at first non-committal, but relented on Nov. 22 by greatly restricting -- but not entirely restricting -- advertisements.  William Barclay Parsons, the subway's chief engineer, was even on hand to present the kind of advertising that would be permissible, displayed in an expensive frame "of copper, handsome and heavily finished. The back was of zinc." In other words, a model way too expensive to mass produce.

Public sentiment leaned towards approval of the commission's decision. "It is pretty well established that the advertising signs in the Subway are condemned, and very properly condemned, by public opinion," claimed a Times editorial.

But the IRT believed it was in its rights. The night of the transit commission's decision, in fact, an odd sort of rebellion occurred: subway stations were swarmed with workers "sent out to affix permanently to the station walls as many of the advertising placards as they could before they were stopped by injunction," along the way drilling holes into the tile walls, causing hundreds of dollars worth of damage. Curiously, no police action was taken, and most IRT employees looked the other way.

This sent the aesthetes of the Municipal Art Society into a swoon! They petitioned the mayor to charge the IRT with damages -- the subway was, after all, city property, although the IRT was franchised to operate it.

It would of course be a losing battle. A meeting of the Architectural League of New York the following month merely concluded that subway stations had been designed improperly and without the option for proper, tasteful advertisement.  In the city's glee to create a purely immaculate environment, they neglected to take into account the inevitability of public consumption and private corporate power.

With City Beautiful proponents realizing they had little legal standing, the IRT eventually won the battle to allow advertisements, and further, to authorize small independent businesses, "flower stands, slot machines, and the like" into their stations.

I do find it amusing that people in 1904 sarcastically referred to the framed advertisements as 'art' and the IRT as 'curators of the subway art museum'. To highlight I reproduce for you a truly snarky editorial that was run in the November 5, 1904 issue of the Evening World:

"Alas! How can we ever hope to become a community of culture and refinement when art is thus strangled at its birth? The poster advertisers were rapidly uplifting us from vandalism to aestheticism. They were educating our sense of form and color, till we could thrill with the subtle beauties of a carmine corset upon a purple background, could palpitate with joy at the chiaroscuro of an ultramarine whiskey bottle against a gamboge sunset, could almost faint with ecstasy at the composition of lilac lingerie amid a sea-green cloud effect.

"Are beautiful works of art like this never to cast their lambent lustre from Subway walls?

"Alas! It seems as though in our Subway we shall have to lose the new and higher art which finds expression in corsets and whiskeys and patent medicines and content ourselves with crude white tiles and simple frescoes.

"It will be a sad blow to lovers of subterranean picturesqueness."

By the way, I wonder what the Municipal Art Society of 1904 would have thought about this:



Corset ad from Victoriana. Dr Kings from LOC. Target train from NYC The Blog.

Bowery Boys Bookshelf: Film history and a morning Danish

I feel as though I am partly responsible for the death of actress Patricia Neal, who passed away this past Sunday. Last Wednesday I was finishing up Sam Wasson's indulgent little "Fifth Avenue 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast At Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman" and admired the author's anecdotes about Neal, who apparently had an awful time with co-star George Peppard.

Then I actually said aloud -- in fact, posted on my Facebook page -- "Wow, that Patricia Neal, what a lady. I can't believe she's still alive!" Next time, I'm keeping it to myself.

However I'm still recommending this book anyway, "Fifth Avenue 5 A.M.," a morsel of a film bio that is the very definition of a good late-summer beach read, because you can finish it in 2-3 hour (preferably with a summer-y beverage) and it's as light as a breeze.

'Breakfast At Tiffany's' is one of the greatest films ever shot in New York City and features a heroine, Holly Golightly, that would have the same cultural effect to mid-'60s tastes that Carrie Bradshaw would have to those decades later. However, very little of Wasson's book truly takes place here in the Big Apply, instead flitting about Europe and Hollywood, tracing the evolution both of the Truman Capote story and Audrey Hepburn's career.

Capote, of course, was quite unhappy with the adaptation, yet the story as Wasson tells it seems to imply the film, in its finished form, was inevitable. The story of the film's inception and production are told through snippets concerning the film's main creators -- Audrey's of course, but also Henry Mancini (composer of 'Moon River'), costumer Edith Head, and the film's director Blake Edwards. Capote's inspirations are also highlighted including the tragic Babe Paley.

Wasson's retelling of the fateful morning of filming at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in front of Tiffany's, on October 2, 1960, has the feeling of mythology being retold. And yes, I guess that's a bit much at times -- he tends to overwrite a bit -- but the wit and subject matter keep it light and frothy.

It's not completely useless as a New York history tool, thanks to a map up front of key locations (mostly in the Upper East Side and Midtown East) to both the film and its principals that serves as a makeshift self-guided walking tour.

One of the cutest details recalls the 'cat call' for aspiring feline actors auditioning for the role of Cat, a sentence all too absurd to retype. You also get to relive some of the most famous legends of film, like the near electrocution within Tiffany's and the real story about that particular, famous black dress (there were two, one for moving, one for standing).

As for Patricia, her appearances are brief but notable. On Peppard: "I always thought he was a piss poor actor."

Below: Neal in Breakfast At Tiffany's



A couple years ago, I did a podcast on the history of Tiffany's & Co., with a definite emphasis on the film. (You can get it here)

Monday, August 9, 2010

'Mad Men' notes: Upscale flowers in a mystery mansion



Every Monday I'll try and check in with the Mad Men episode from the night before and focus in on one or two historical references made on the show. Spoilers aplenty, so read no further if you don't want to know....

Last night's episode of 'Mad Men' spent one half of the episode in California and the other half following the two office divorcees (Don Draper and his British partner Lane Pryce) on a raunchy boy's night out in the Village. Pryce had been victim earlier in the episode of a disastrously slapstick mix-up: his secretary accidentally switched the notes in two boxes of roses, sending a heartfelt card intended to his ex-wife instead to office manager Joan, and vice versa. Joan responds by storming his office, tossing the flowers in his face, then firing Pryce's befuddled secretary. Wacky!

At least the newly unemployed woman had the good sense to order the flowers from Rhinelander Florists, one of the poshest places to get your bouquets on Madison Avenue in the 1960s.

Rhinelander (867 Madison Avenue) was opened in 1936 by Frank Tomaino, a former gardener for Huntington Hartford, the old-money retail magnate who owned the A&P supermarket chain, and perhaps it was through these connections that Tomaino was able to accumulate a client list that included "the Rockefellers, Astors and Whitneys" (according to his obit).

Just as likely however it was the desirability of Tomaino's choice location and that which he chose to name his business -- the mysterious Rhinelander Mansion at 72nd Street. The lushious manor, dripping with old world Beaux-Arts elegance, is notable in that its eccentric owner, Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo*, never bothered to move in when it was completed in 1898.

Mrs Waldo, heavily in debt, didn't seem to have a knack for real estate. According to historian John Tauranac: "In 1908, a 'For Sale' sign hung in front of the building, but there was no sale, as much because of Mrs. Waldo's price tag as her impetuosity. One broker had practically consummated a sale, but while the papers were being drawn up Mrs. Waldo calmly said, 'I don't think I'll sell,' and walked out."

The mansion was left unoccupied -- and quite unkempt, to the consternation of neighbors -- until 1911, when Gertrude passed it on to her sister, who didn't want to live here either.

The first floor was made into retail spaces in 1921, and it was fifteen years later, I believe, when Tamaino moved in. His business faced Madison Avenue and would go on to share the building with a corner pharmacy. By the 1950s, the upper floors were finally occupied, and how -- by the photographer Edgar de Evia, known for his work in ad campaigns for products like Borden Ice Cream, and for fashion spreads taken here in his very own rustic home, famously transformed into a hazy, Miss Havisham-style set piece.

Rhinelander Florist was well associated with the floral needs of upscale Upper East Side clients. In 'The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" by Dominic Dunne, he writes, "Babette told her to look up the Grenvilles in the Social Register at Rhinelander Florist on the corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street."

By the 1980s, the florist pops up at a Sixth Avenue location. Tomaino died in 1988, and by then, the Rhinelander Mansion was in the throes of a massive renovation, courtesy Ralph Lauren, who turned the dusty old relic into the retailer's flagship store in 1986.

*You may know Mrs. Waldo's son Rhinelander Waldo, who was fire commissioner for New York City during the Triangle Factory Fire, and briefly the city's police commissioner, famous for promoting officer Charlie Becker to the head of the anti-vice squad. (Listen to our Case Files of the NYPD podcast to hear about Becker's strange fate.)

ALSO: Don and Lane fill up their flasks and hit a movie theater for some loud, obnoxious heckling. I'm not a big Godzilla fan, but based on chronology, the film they were watching had to be 'Godzilla vs. the Thing', more popularly known as 'Mothra vs. Godzilla' -- unless they were at a revival house watching the original 1954 'Godzilla'.

Photo above from Racked

Friday, August 6, 2010

The New York City Subway and the creation of the IRT


PODCAST In the fourth part of our transportation series BOWERY BOYS ON THE GO, we finally take a look at the birth of the New York City subway. After decades of outright avoiding underground transit as a legitimate option, the city got on track with the help of August Belmont and the newly formed Interborough Rapid Transit.

We'll tell you about the construction of the first line, traveling miles underground through Manhattan and into the Bronx. How did the city cope with this massive project? And what unfortunate accident nearly ripped apart a city block mere feet from Grand Central Station?

ALSO: What New York City mayor had a little too much fun on opening day?

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: New York City Subway, Part 1: Birth of the IRT




Below: An illustration of Alfred Beach's pneumatic tube, built in 1870 a short distance from City Hall ran under Broadway from Warren Street to Murray Street. Although it's little more than a footnote to the history of the New York City subway, it underscores that the technology was always available, even if public and political enthusiasm for such a project was not.



Abram Hewitt, mayor of New York in 1886, and an early proponent for an underground subway. (Pic NYPL)



The cut and cover method chosen by subway engineers ensured that New Yorkers would be faced front-and-center with the daily slog of excavation and construction.


Forty-second Street during construction of the subway system, 1901.


Mayhem during subway construction at Broadway and 134th Street! (NYPL)


The plan for subway entrances, taking liberally from the design of kiosks in Budapest.


Thank this rich guy for your first subway, New York. August Belmont Jr., later known for his contributions to horse racing, founded the Interborough Rapid Transit Company to help operate the fledgling new subway system. (Pic LOC)

FOR MORE INFO:
We cannot begin to due justice to the birth of the subway in the way the good folks at the website NYSUBWAY.ORG have done. Hundreds of photos, original documents, and a wonderfully exhaustive list of stations, including many no longer in operation. Forgotten New York, of course, has several rich pages devoted to the subject.

And you definitely swing by the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, where you can actually sit in one of the original subway cars, among many, many more treasures of the original IRT.

Older Bowery Boys posts on today's subjects:
Alfred Beach: The Short Lived Thrill of the Windy Subway
Grand Central's Other Explosion
Know Your Mayors: George B McClellan
Know Your Mayors: Abram Hewitt

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Before it begins: Emptiness underground, part 3




Two forlorn shots of the IRT's 28th Street Station, utterly untouched by throngs, 1904. One hundred and six years later, hundreds boarding the 4 and 6 trains would enter here. Photos courtesy LOC

Back of the train: New York City Subway 1905

I'm pretty sure I've posted this video before, but as a preparation for tomorrow's new podcast, I thought it was worth another look. A rather tranquil look down the subway tunnels, 105 years ago....



June 5, 1905: the Interborough Rapid Transit line from 14th Street to 42nd Street, not yet in operation a year.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Before it begins: Emptiness underground, part 2


Like the set of a future German expressionist film, the brand new power station for Interborough Rapid Transit's underground train service sits ready for use, 1904. (Actually the station isn't 'underground'; it sat on the far west side on 58th Street and 11th Avenue)


The gleaming yet strangely spooky City Hall Station, still under construction but getting ready for opening day, 1904 (Detroit Publishing Company)

Photos courtesy LOC

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Before it begins: Emptiness underground, part 1

Two images of New York subway tunnels from 1904, before regular service began in October.




Original photos courtesy Library of Congress, cleaned up editions at Shorpy

(The top one is 14th Street station)

Monday, August 2, 2010

'Mad Men' notes: Swan song for a lion of Broadway

Every Monday I'll try and check in with the Mad Men episode from the night before and focus in on one or two historical references made on the show. Spoilers aplenty, so read no further if you don't want to know....

It's Christmastime, December 1964, and our favorite upstart ad agency, in order to impress their primary client Lucky Strike, throw a wild, boozy office party which, being Mad Men, naturally leads to all sorts of inappropriate work behavior.

Meanwhile, down at Don's Waverly Place bachelor pad, he meets his neighbor, a nurse from nearby St. Vincents Hospital -- a bittersweet mention, as the hospital shut its doors earlier this year.

But it was one of the very first lines of dialogue that caught my attention last night, as Don's secretary Allison brings in a resume from a young woman (named Violet) whom Don had met -- had flirted with, assumably -- at the Ziegfeld Theatre. The line is probably a throwaway to set up a shocking hookup between Don and Allison later in the show, but it's a casual nod to an old theatrical treasure.

This isn't the lavish Ziegfeld movie theater at West 54th Street, because that wasn't built until 1969. Rather, this is a reference to the original Ziegfeld, built by Florenz Ziegfeld himself back in 1927.

The first Ziegfeld was just slightly down the street from today's Ziegfeld, at Sixth Avenue at W. 54th St. (That would place it just a couple blocks north of Sterling Cooper Draper Price's offices at the Time & Life Building.) A dazzling palace financed by William Randolph Hearst, the theater was hoisted upon the reputation of one of Broadway's most successful producers, the creator of the sexy spectacular Ziegfeld Follies. Unfortunately, with the Great Depression around the corner, the theater had few successes under Ziegfeld's personal direction (Showboat being one) before it transitioned into a movie house in 1933.

It returned to a legitimate Broadway stage in the 1940s, then became a recording studio for NBC's upstart television operations in the 1950s. However, by 1964, the Ziegfeld was back in a musical state of mind, in the throes of one final attempt to capture the glories of live theater.

That February, producers dusted off the footlights and reopened with a vehicle for one of the old kings of vaudeville Bert Lahr (best known to film buff, naturally, as the Cowardly Lion of 'The Wizard of Oz'.) In 'Foxy', Lahr sang and generally hammed his way through a light musical (by Robert Emmett Dolan and Johnny Mercer) about gold prospectors in the Yukon. Critics loved it, and Lahr went on to grab the Tony Award for Best Actor, his final theatrical award before his death in 1967. Audiences, however, were less enamored; the show closed in April 1964.

At right: Lahr in 'Foxy', 1964. Pic courtesy LIFE

I'm not sure if Don Draper would have actually met anybody at the Ziegfeld in December 1964, as there were no shows running. Although perhaps NBC was still using it at this time as a soundstage; certainly Don might latch onto a script girl or production assistant while visiting a client filming a commercial.

The Ziegfeld tried one final time for glory the following year, in November 1965, with Anya, a musical variant of the story of Anastacia, the alleged last surviving member of the Russian royal family. The dowdy show was put out of its misery with a couple weeks, and the theater itself, sadly, was demolished the following year and replaced with s 50-story skyscraper, currently the home of international finance firm Alliance Bernstein.

For more information on Ziegfield and the theaters that bore his name, check out our podcast on the Ziegfeld Follies.

And speaking of coy New York City history references, I hope you caught a remark made on the AMC show 'Rubicon' following 'Mad Men'. Standing on one of the piers south of the Seaport, looking out at the East River, a character remarks: "My great-grandfather Horace started a ferry line between here and Brooklyn. It expanded to New London and south of Baltimore. Did pretty well for himself, until he was gobbled up by that prick [Cornelius] Vanderbilt."