Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tony Curtis: "The cat's in a bag and the bag's in a river"



Curtis, as the smarmy Sidney Falco, in 'Sweet Smell of Success'

"Another way I coped was by being rough, rowdy, and athletic. Not on a basketball court or a football field; on the streets of New York. I would climb the trestles of the el train like I was Tarzan. I would jump from the roof of one apartment building to another, sometimes downhill. One time I misjudged and bounced off the side of another building. I cracked a few ribs.

But my favorite stunt was really dangerous. I call it trolley hitching. I'd start on the sidewalk under the el. When the trolley was going about twenty miles an hour I'd run next to it, jump up, grab the window bar, and hang on. My timing was split second. I couldn't afford a mistake."

-- Bronx baby Tony Curtis, who died last night at age 85, on his own scrappy, street-bred machismo, from his book The Making of Some Like It Hot and the Classic American Movie. (Excerpt from here)

The quote in the header is from one is his best works and one of the greatest New York films ever: 'Sweet Smell of Success'. Here's one of Curtis' jazz-soaked scenes from the movie:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hilltop Park: home base for NYC's premier baseball team


A few hundred well-dressed men and a few women and children enter Hilltop Park, 1912 (See original photograph at Shorpy)

This weekend marks the end of the regular season in Major League Baseball, as the New York Yankees head to the playoffs, and the New York Mets head to, well, I'm sure many very lovely, well-deserved vacations.

The Yankees, defending World Series champions, were doing okay for themselves a hundred years ago also, when they were called the New York Highlanders, placing second in the American League to the Philadelphia Athletics. Second place was the best the Highlanders would ever do; ultimate victory would only come when they were bought in 1915 by beer mogul Jacob Ruppert and their name changed to the most press friendly 'Yankees'. (Hear more about their history in our 2008 podcast on the history of the New York Yankees.)

Below I'm reprinting my article from March 2008 about the Highlanders uptown home Hilltop Park. And I'll get to the old haunt of the Mets on Friday....

-----

Before they went by their better known name -- and before they were really any good -- the team that would become 'the Yankees' were known as the Highlanders, from 1903-1913. The name played to a couple dated references. The team captain was named Joseph Gordon, and the name referenced a British military outfit named Gordon's Highlanders. More importantly, the team played on one of the highest points in the city, in a long forgotten ball field called Hilltop Park.

A large but spare field located in Washington Heights on Broadway between 165th and 168th streets, Hilltop Park could accommodate 15,000 to 16,000 spectators comfortably, though more exciting match-ups would draw clusters of almost 10,000 standing room only crowds. In fact, in the rather lax early days of formalized sports, fans were allowed to stand around, almost virtually on the playing field!




I'm sure it was at that capacity on opening day, April 30, 1903, when the Highlanders played the Washington Senators. Yet despite a cost of $200,000 and arresting views of the Hudson River, Hilltop had a swamp in right field and most of the bleacher seats were uncovered until 1912, making for many a hot, steamy game for fans.

The Highlanders were in equally good shape. In fact, many of the best moments in Hilltop Park's brief history were made by players from other teams against the Highlanders. Cy Young (Boston Americans) and Ty Cobb (Washington Senators), the two best known players from this generation, had spectacular days on Hilltop beating the crap out of the local team.

Hilltop Park is almost completely gone save for one peculiar memorial. In 1914, almost as soon as the Highlanders moved to the nearby Polo Grounds (and thus changed their team name to their popular nickname 'the Yankees'), the field was demolished. Within ten years, the hospital that today is known as the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would be built over it, and it stands there still today.

However a small base-shaped plaque can be found in the grass outfront, placed there in 1993. It's on the exact spot of the original home place -- thank God it happened to be in a garden and not somebody's room -- honoring the now-forgotten home of the team that would become the most successful team in baseball.



Reprinted from the Bowery Boys article from March 20, 2008

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hot List: What To Do In New York, Sept. 28, 1860


It's gettin' hot in here: the Light Guard Ball at the Academy of Music in 1860

We may be 150 years separated, but the New Yorkers of 1860 had similar (if more primitive) fascinations, judging from the September 28, 1860 issue of the New York Daily Tribune. If you were stressed out about national politics (I could vote for this Lincoln fellow, but they won't much like it in the South) or local affairs (oh Mayor Wood, what shenanigans will you get up to next?), you could leave your house and sample some of these amusements:

Museums
One of New York's most popular attractions since 1814, Barnum's American Museum was a worn amusement constantly trying to outdo itself. In the Sept. 28 paper, the museum advertised a selection of bizarre, largely politically incorrect exhibits, such as a living tattooed New Zealand chief and 'the most singular and wonderful Albino Family, or White Negros'.

Not to mention the star of the show, the 'What Is It? or Man-Monkey' (actually a mentally disabled actor with a misshapen cranium) and the variety of aquatic animals ('flying fish, living alligators, living crocodiles') living in poor conditions downstairs. And 'All To Be Seen For 25 Cents'. Nothing to be offended about here. Moving on....

Theater
Just east at the Bowery Theater you could find the biggest star of the Bowery, Frank Chanfrau , appearing on stage doing some of his famous impersonations. Although the newspaper does not list the particular performances, Chanfrau was known for mimicking other famous actors (like Edwin Forrest) and poking fun at serious Shakespearan roles. The actor was the star and manager of the Bowery Theatre for many years. Also on the bill: a dance by the totally forgotten Ada Price. (The following night, you could go to Niblo's Garden and see the actual Mr. Forrest doing actual Shakespeare.)

Fairs
The annual American Institute Fair, what some consider the first 'world's fairs', was in full swing at Niblo's Garden in September 1860, with displays of industry and horticulture (something for the lads and the ladies!), and New Yorkers could marvel at "Pratt's new anti-friction Universal Rolling Journal Box." The Fair used to be held at the lavish Crystal Palace, but that glorious venue had burnt down a little less than two years ago.

Galleries
Although there were no specific large-scale galleries at this time, landscape art often found audiences in small venues, like the Crayon Art Gallery at Broadway and Eighth Street, displaying George Loring Brown's 'Bay And City of New York At Sunrise'. The Crayon gallery was owned by future journalist George Ward Nichols, who would go on to his most infamous moment in 1867, writing an error-strewn article for Harper's Magazine on Wild Bill Hickok that nevertheless went on to immortalize the gunslinger into a national icon of the old West.

Publishing
If you preferred to read a book in the park, look no further than the new version of Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass', for only $1.25. The Whitman collection was originally published in 1855, but many revised editions were released afterwards. This 1860 edition is notable for its strange red-orange cover with a butterfly, which on top of its connection to nature, was "also a vernacular term for prostitute." After somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 copies of the 456-page tome were published, its publisher Thayer and Eldridge almost immediately went bankrupt. ALSO PUBLISHED: 'An Overland Journey' by Horace Greeley, recounting a cross-country adventure from New York to San Francisco.

Sports
If you didn't fancy the horse races out at Fashion Race Course in Flushing(Queens), one could venture up to Jones Wood for a curious event involving acrobats and wheelbarrows. The famous European acrobat Jean François Gravelet-Blondin (often billed as Charles Blondin) -- a.k.a. 'the Daring Blondin' -- walked the tightrope and pushed a wheelbarrow alongside it, to the delights of dazed thrillseekers below. It was billed, naturally, 'The Great Wheelbarrow Ascension'. Blondin would have drawn great crowds on his real claim to fame -- he crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope just the year previous.

Read other news of the day from Sept. 28, 1860 here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

'Mad Men' notes: Nights at the New York Playboy Club

Above: the Manhattan Playboy Club, at 5 East 59th Street

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....

In 1964, a salacious pulp novel was published with the title 'I Was A Negro Playboy Bunny," billed with the tagline "The beautiful woman you see on this cover was once a Playboy bunny....read the startling story (in her owns words) of what goes on behind the doors of the wildest sex palace in the world - the New York Playboy club - and behind her own doors!"

This novel might have been an inspiration to the writers of 'Mad Men' who featured the New York Playboy Club in last night's episode, and in particular, an engaging black cocktail hostess formost in the heart (but not the priorities) of one of the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

The author, Anna English, worked at the New York Playboy Club, a Manhattan branch of the successful swanky lounge franchise started by Hugh Hefner in Chicago in 1960. The Manhattan venue was located at 5 East 59th Street (between Fifth and Madison), and, like those in Chicago, Miami and New Orleans, was famously a members-only club; you gained admittance by possession of an exclusive key decorated with the Playboy logo, described by comedian Dick Gregory as "a status symbol, like a Mercedes is now."

You would think Manhattan would have gotten its own Playboy Club earlier than December 1963, but Hefner had troubles getting his liquor license. "It is a shame that the biggest city in the country should have this sort of problem," Hef lamented. Due to the political content of the magazine (yes, this was back when people read Playboy), Hefner also had problems with the FBI, which he faced with aplomb, sending J. Edgar Hoover the following letter:

"Dear Mr. Hoover,
Hugh Hefner, Editor-Publisher of Playboy Magazine and President of the Playboy Clubs, has asked me to welcome you back to New York, and to make certain that whenever you wish, the facilities of the New York Playboy Club will be made available to you and your guests.

Therefore, at Mr. Hefner's request, we are enclosing a special Celebrity Key which will make it possible for you and your friends to visit the Club anytime during your stay. . . ."

(No word on whether Hoover used his gift.)

Like a campy (or campier) version of Hooters, businessmen were greeted by sexy cocktail waitresses, dressed in the trademark Playboy bunny ears and cottontail. A young Gloria Steinem went 'undercover' at the New York location for a magazine expose*, revealing some of the more unsavory requirements in the 'Playboy Club Bunny Manual'. ('Bunnies are reminded that there are many pleasing means they can employ to stimulate club's liquor volume'.) You can read the sad, hilarious, thoroughly bizarre article here, featuring the excerpt: "'My tail droops,' she said, pushing it into position with one finger. 'Those damn customers always yank it.'"

Another notable employee of the Manhattan club? Deborah Harry, making ends meet in a bunny outfit in the late 1960s. Believe it or not, that's her in the picture, at right.

The shimmery glitz and respectability of the Playboy Clubs (and the misogyny it embodied) faded with the 1970s, and by the following decade, New York's tattered hotspot was a joke that even People Magazine took a moment to poke fun of: "A large illuminated rabbit's head glows over the door. It seems impossible now to look at the logo without thinking of an automobile air freshener." The club closed in 1986.

*Steinem's article was called 'I Was A Playboy Bunny'. I believe Ms. English's book was most likely a play off this title. A 1963 issue of Jet Magazine ran a picture of Anna with a blurb about the club.

Oh, and the major cultural event mentioned in the episode (The Beatles at Shea Stadium)? More on that this Friday....

Top photo courtesy Life Google images; bottom photo from Marlene44

Friday, September 24, 2010

House party: A weekend of NYC's most historic homes



Above: the Morris-Jumel Mansion (Postcard courtesy NYPL)

If we piqued your interest in last week's episode on Gracie Mansion, this weekend is an excellent opportunity to check it out along with a couple dozen of the oldest and most famous homes in the New York City area.

The Historic House Festival is a weekend long welcome mat to how the other half used to live, with events planned in all five boroughs.

We've mentioned most of these places on this blog and on prior podcasts, and now's your chance to check to them out for free.

Check out the official Historic House Trust website for events and times.

The special nighttime tour of Gracie Mansion is TONIGHT (Friday, Sept, 24) Make your reservation by contacting DToole@cityhall.nyc.gov.

If you can't make that one, there are lots of other locations to recommend, including wine tasting at the Morris-Jumel Mansion and an old-time baseball game (played with 19th century rules) next to the Revolutionary War era Old Stone House.

A great many of these homes made my list A History of New York In 100 Buildings. Read up on the following homes, then go check them out for free this weekend. On top of the aforementioned houses, there's also the Merchant's House in Manhattan (home to a ghost), the Wyckoff Farmhouse in Brooklyn, the John Bowne House in Queens, the Voorlezer's House (part of old Richmondtown) and the Conference House in Staten Island, and the Van Cortlandt House Museum in the Bronx.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Puzzle time! Can you identify these details of Hell's Gate?


In digging around a little further for information on Hoorn's Hook and Hell's Gate -- two East River spots mentioned in the Gracie Mansion podcast -- I came across the incredible illustration among the Library of Congress's digital images page.

Labeled the 'East View of Hell's Gate, in the Province of New York', the piece ran in The London Magazine in April 1778. The London was a anti-Tory publication that naturally took great interest in the war across the pond.

That April, the magazine ran a 'Description of New York Island' paying special attention to places of 'dangerous passage', including, naturally, the East River's most treacherous pass, 'that remarkable spot, called Hell's Gate'.

(By the way, you can read the whole issue here, thanks to the Hathi Trust. The magazine features such articles as 'The Hypochondriack', 'The False Prude' and 'A Turkish Sentimental Tale' and columns on poetry and mathematics. But the article on New York is not, curiously, available to read.)

Alongside this article ran the plate above; however, time and distorted perspective have almost entirely obscured the precise location where the picture was etched. Our only clues are a set of numbered details, most of them old place names that have faded into obscurity.

1 Hoorn's Hook (mentioned in the podcast)
2 The Gridiron
3 Hancock's Rock
4 The Mill Rock (Clue: This is still around.)
5 Morrisana (Probably not the closely named neighborhood but the home of this person.)
6 Bahannas Island
7 Pinfold's Place
8 Hallet's Point (Clue: Part of this today.)
9 The Pot
10 The Hog's Back
11 The Frying Pan

How many of them could you place approximately on a current map today? (Click on the illustration for a bigger view) I admit, many of them have me stumped. Take a guess, then look at a Google Map overhead look of the area for comparison. This article reveals the identity of a few of these.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Behold, the Wheatons and the Quackenbushes!



Above is the only photograph I can find of Gracie Mansion that features members of both the Wheaton and the Quackenbush families, who took over the manor in the late 19th century. It's from a book which I had to scan, and the original is courtesy New York Historical Society, so I apologize for the quality of the image. But even slightly obscured, it's an amazing picture.

Taken in 1890, the house doesn't look like it's in such a bad state. Neither Lambert S. Quackenbush nor (Alice) Hermione Quackenbush appear in this photo, but other members of the Wheaton and Quackenbush clan are here. The girl standing next to the seated woman is Amalie Hermoine Quackenbush, daughter of Lambert and Hermione.

I find the strange composition of this picture very compelling, how they're spread out over the front yard of the mansion (which was, by tradition, called Gracie or Gracie's Mansion, even at this time), how the young girl in the foreground holds a hoop, how another daughter of Lambert's, Jenny, stands far in the background by a tree.

Image from 'New York City's Gracie Mansion: A History of the Mayor's House' by Mary Black

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Who are the Spring Street Fencibles?


Spring Street and Broadway in 1785, 30 years before the events of the article below. Illustration courtesy NYPL digital images

While researching the Gracie Mansion podcast, I found mention of a street gang by the name of the Spring Street Fencibles, or simply, the Spring Streeters. Obviously, the streets of New York have been crawling with gang activity since the 19th century. But what makes this shadowy gang particularly interesting to me is the date of their only documented crime -- 1825, making them one of the earliest mentioned organized gangs in the press. Their foul indiscretion? The murder of a well-known city merchant, an event that may have greatly affected the namesake of Gracie Mansion, Archibald Gracie -- depending on which source you believe.

It is not known whether the Spring Streeters were truly organized in same way as later gangs like the Roach Guards and the Dead Rabbits; nor is it clear that their members were strictly Irish-born, as they commonly were in those days. In prior histories, they are loosely clumped with another group called the Grand Streeters. Spring Street runs parallel a couple blocks north of Grand Street, and it's possible the two gangs were rivals or even one and the same gang.

The only crime by the the Spring Street Fencibles that I could find on record is the horrible slaying that occurred the early morning of June 3, 1825. The young drunken rowdies accosted a private carriage at Broadway and Art Street (or today's Astor Place). A group of gentlemen accompanying the carriage uptown confronted the gang, and a 'scuffle' ensued. One of the gentlemen, one Mr. Lambert, was punched in the stomach and later died of his injuries. The gang members were rounded up and carted off to prison.

The confusion as to the victim's name underscores one of the problems I often find in researching the early days of New York, when newspapers were not as concerned with exacting and factual detail. One key source, on the history of Gracie Mansion, clearly lists the victim as David Lambert, an associate of Gracie's who put up the family in one of his townhouses when they fell on hard times. Other sources, however, list the victim's name as Henry Lambert, of which nothing is known.

An old merchants guide of New York clearly links David as the victim of the crime, "up by Sailors Snug Harbor (near where Tenth Street is now)." The original land for Sailors Snug Harbor sat where today's Washington Square Park is, which would have been just west of the reported violence. (Snug Harbor would move to its present location in Staten Island in 1833.)

Whatever the identity of the unfortunate man who died 185 years ago in the area of Astor Place, his demise also marked the end for this sorry group of thugs, locked up in prison for either seven or ten years -- again, depending on which source you trust*.

Had this group of ruffians come along before 1807, they might have been known as the Brannon Street Fencibles, for that was the original name of Spring Street. The road was named for a Mr. Brannon the keeper of a "noted public house and a beautifully-laid-out garden," situated nearby an actual spring of water. After 1807, the name switched to Spring Street.

*For the podcast, I clearly went with it being David.

Monday, September 20, 2010

'Mad Men' notes: Here's to whiskey and Bermuda shorts!



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....

On last night's episode of 'Mad Men', they actually used a tavern that's still around and kicking -- P.J. Clarke's on Third Avenue. Peggy had a strange altercation with her potential hip cat paramour, leading to her storming out of the bar.

The photo above, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, taken in 1953, demonstrates that the bar has always attracted trendy gentlemen, namely those in Bermuda shorts.

P.J. Clarke's, a well-preserved example of New York's Irish heritage, traces its history back to the late 19th century, when the original pub, now shaded by immense skyscrapers, was surrounded by shabby tenements. Its namesake, one Patrick J. Clarke, came along in 1902 and bought the joint from his boss ten years later.

Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life images

Friday, September 17, 2010

Gracie Mansion: How a bucolic summer home survived a couple wars, a society feud and a few live-in mayors


Photo by the Wurts Brothers, date unknown. Courtesy NYPL

Archibald Gracie admired the extraordinary vistas at Horn's Hook -- overlooking the East River and the churning waters of Hell's Gate -- and decided to build a house here. Little did he know what an extraordinary journey this comfy little Federal home would take over the next two hundred years.

After seeing a lamentable period as a refreshment stand and a place for sewing classes, Gracie Mansion became the first home for the Museum of the City of New York. Then, one day, Robert Moses came along and fell in love with it. Find out how the waterfront mansion became New York City's defacto White House for over 70 years. And why our current mayor chose NOT to live here.

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: Gracie Mansion

An illustration from May 1808, looking across the waters at Gracie's mansion, newly built, and other country homes along the shorefront. In between them sits Hell's Gate, the treacherous confluence of waters that often sank vessels and made travel quite difficult. (Courtesy LOC)


The land around the Gracie property was whittled away during the 19th century, and what remained was turned into Carl Schurz Park. The mansion, however, sat in disrepair and hardly of much use outside of storage and a basement refreshment stand. (Courtesy NYPL)


How it looked in 1942, before the mayors moved in...


William O'Dwyer's new wife Sloan Simpson readies the Gracie Mansion living room for an event, or at least poses for a photo op. O'Dwyer was the second of nine mayors to live at Gracie.
Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, May 1950 (courtesy Life images)


Certainly looks homey from here! A Federalist home is not complete without John Lindsay, G E chairman Gerald Phillippe, and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sitting on the lawn. John's son ride by without notice. Photo by John Dominis, May 1968 (courtesy Life images)


The front of Gracie Mansion today, although most guests use the side entrance. Gracie's still faces into lovely vista overlooking the East River, but it mostly obscured today by trees.


Visit NYC.GOV's website about Gracie Mansion to inquire about tours for individuals or small groups. If you have more than 25 people, you can actually have tea at Gracie Mansion. May King Van Rensselaer would have been proud. Our current mayor, by the way, lives here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Jones Woods: A Gothic picnic getaway in upper Manhattan



Over 15,000 Irish Americans gathered in Jones Wood in 1856, to greet countryman James Stephen

Once upon a time, back when Fifth Avenue was a dirt path and Bloomingdale was literally a blooming dale, there stood a haunted and most mysterious forest located on bluffs overlooking the East River, far east of the area today known as Lenox Hill in the Upper East Side. (Basically between 66th-88th streets to 75th-77th street.)

Back in the 1700s this was one of the most densely forested areas of the island, miles from the city of New York. Prominent families moved here, settling in secluded homes overlooking the crashing waters of Hells Gate below. And not surprising, ghost stories and legends took root here as well.

As an early account describes it: "It was the last fastness of the forest primeval that once covered the rocky shores of the East River, and its wildness was almost savage. In the infant days of the colony it was the scene of tradition and fable, having been said to be a favorite re-sort of the pirates who dared the terrors of Hell Gate, and came here to land their treasures and hold their revels."

At the heart of this forest was a small, pioneering 90-acre farm called the Louvre, its owner unknown today, or why it shared its name with a famous French museum. Later, two famous New York families owned manors in this once out-of-town thicket. The Schermerhorns kept the family crypt here until it was nothing but broken tombstones, protruding underfoot when later the area would become better known for picnics and family outings.

The second family was the Provoost clan, who bought the Louvre in 1742 and transformed it into an elegant home. Although prominent, the Provoosts were supporters of the American cause at the time of the Revolutionary War. Samuel Provoost (that dapper man to the right) later became president of King's College, the pre-Revolutionary precursor to Columbia University. His cousin David, who fought with Washington's army, took a more notorious path to fame, become a legendary smuggler nicknamed Ready-Money Provoost.

When Ready-Money died, he too was entombed in the family crypt here. Later, the site of Provoost's grave attracted ghost seekers, who would "gather there and tell each other wonderful stories of the unearthly doings of the old man's ghost. Not one of them could have been persuaded by all the ready money in the city to keep a night's vigil under the trees that overhung the lonely, desolate grave."

Later still the home was sold to a John Jones, who lent the forest his name. By the 19th century, the woods had become a popular destination for nearby city dwellers. The Provoost's family chapel was soon turned into a clubhouse and adjoining manor grounds into places of recreation. Stories of its mysterious past and recent days as a retreat for prominent families drew recreationers of all sorts, until it became an what some have called the 'first major U.S. amusement park', with beer gardens, sporting events and great spaces for large gatherings.

It was still an untamed, wooded area, but now people arrived for "billiards, bowling, and donkey rides," for general outdoor carousing and drinking.

Jones Wood was pegged to become the very first site for 'a great park', the land to be purchased by the state on 1851, to be transformed into an area worthy of the lavish public spaces of Europe. Proponents for an official park here claims the lush riverfront and rich "dense growth of forst trees" made it ideal for immediate conversion to a formal park.

But there was strong opposition by those who maintained that a 'central' park on the island would be preferred, both for its aesthetic symmetry and attractiveness to landowners surrounding it. And at only 150 acres, Jones was also deemed too small. Despite this, in June 1853, the state approved BOTH Jones' Wood and the area that was to become Central Park.

Landowners around the Jones Wood area and merchants benefiting from sporting events and beer gardens had their day a year later, when city plans for Jones Wood were entirely abandoned.

It still remained popular for much of the late 19th century, particularly used by Irish and Germans from nearby Yorkville, although it was chipped away by new properties tenements. In 1894, a devastating fire swept through destroying properties over eleven acres. By this time, more sophisticated amusement parks began appearing out in a distant area of Brooklyn named Coney Island. Meanwhile, developers looked hungrily at the remaining area of Jones' Wood. By the light of 20th century, all traces of this jovial and mysterious forest had vanished.

This article is a reprint from my blog post dated July 22, 2008. Read the original post here.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The wheelhouse of Wall Street 1885

No 'Mad Men Notes' this week as I'm out of town, but please enjoy this captivating shot of mad men on Wall Street, circa 1885, courtesy the Cornell University Library. The more you look at it, the more interesting details emerge. Click on picture for much greater detail.



Trinity Church, at far left, would still be New York's tallest building. What is today's Federal Hall was, back in 1885, the United States sub-treasury, or a proto-Federal Reserve.

Sitting right next to the future Federal Hall was the U.S. Assay Office, which tested the purity of official precious metals. Does the building look familiar? Many years later, the facade was shaved off and shipped up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who uses it in their sculpture garden as the entrance to the American wing.

Almost all the conveyances are horsedrawn, but note fancier white carriage coming towards the camera from the left.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Twin Towers, in their glamorous film performances


From the forgotten Carroll O'Connor vehicle Law And Disorder, from 1974

I just found the most fantastic website to peruse on a day like today. The World Trade Center In Movies is a methodical -- some would say obsessed -- look at the Twin Towers as they appear in motion pictures. This site seem to have the buildings' complete filmography, including silhouettes and appearances in skyline scenes.

Although it made many more appearances in the 1980s and 1990s, I prefer a good peek via a good '70s. Check out the extensive collection here. Here are a few of my favorites:

Klute 1971, with the World Trade Center, still under construction, in the background


The lovely 1975 Robert Redford/Faye Dunaway thriller Three Days Of The Condor


And the 1978 oddity Bye Bye Monkey starring Gérard Depardieu!


All pics from the World Trade Center In Movies

Thursday, September 9, 2010

History In The Making 9/9: Sad Music Edition



A gloomy sight indeed -- the incineration of Hale's Piano Factory, a competitor of Steinway, located at West 35th Street and 10th Avenue, destroyed by fire on September 3, 1877. One report calls Joseph Hale's business a manufacturer of "notorious bogus pianos." Several people were killed in this horrible blaze. Read the original piece from the New York Times archive.

The best of Bay Ridge: a thorough and lovely look at the other Third Avenue, the one in Brooklyn [Forgotten New York]

The Not-So-Long Island Railroad: The LIRR makes its first trip from Penn Station one hundred years ago yesterday, carrying the first of millions of commuters. [City Room]

Fran-tastic: An excerpt of an interview of one of my favorite New Yorkers of all time, Fran Leibowitz. "Then people starting opening clubs with an eye to being written about, so it was never a club you wanted to go to." [Vanishing New York]

Tourism: Follow an Ohio family on their very first trip to New York City, circa 1950. 'This Is New York'! [Flaming Pablum]

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two hundred years ago: Voyage on a doomed ship!


New York Harbor, possibly late 1810s (caption reads only '1800s') courtesy NYPL

Two hundred years ago today, a boat on its maiden voyage left New York's harbor. This happened virtually every day in New York, of course, during this period as America's most active and bustling port city. However, from 1807 and lasting well into the War of 1812, merchants were suffering under debilitating federal embargo laws -- in place to prevent American shippers from trading with England and France -- and were hungry for solutions.

That boat on its first voyage, the Tonquin, was owned by German fur trader John Jacob Astor. He had commissioned it for an unusual mission -- to set up an outpost on the other side of the North American continent, virtually unknown territory in 1810. It didn't help that its young captain, Jonathan Thorn, was a wee unhinged. "I fear we are in the hands of a maniac," said one crewman.

The vessel should have left two days earlier, but foul winds kept the impatient crew planted off of Staten Island. When the finally left, on Sept. 8th, they were alledgedly escorted out of the harbor by no less than 'Old Ironsides' itself, the frigate USS Constitution.

The Tonquin ended its trip, over six months later, on the west coast of North America and down along the Columbia River. This would be the first permanent American settlement on the west coast, in the future state of Oregon.

The crew set up a trading post and named it Astoria in honor their financier. An expedition of more Astor employees arrived the next year having trekked across the continent.

Many years later, in 1839, investors in a new development in Queens County would attempt to lure the wealthy businessman by stealing the name of that outpost for themselves. Alas, John Jacob Astor never lived in either Astoria -- the one in Oregon, or in Queens. [More on the Astor family in one of our early podcasts.)

The Tonquin was a distant memory then, as was its captain Thorn. Just a month after leaving the outpost at Astoria, Thorn and his crew were slaughtered by angry northern Salish inhabitants, who then blew up the ship.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

'Mad Men' notes: A movie theater classic in its final days

The Capitol in 1935, its feature attraction the spy thriller Rendezvous

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 doing some background work on last week's podcast, I came across an indulgent presentation in the New York Tribune of some elaborate new mural pieces by nearly forgotten painter William Cotton, installed in 1920 on the walls of the Capitol Theater, at Broadway and 51st Street. "The great mural paintings by William Cotton in the Capitol Theater stand to-day unrivaled. There are in America no decorations to compare with them." (Take a look at these 'unrivaled' murals here.)

I crossed paths with the Capitol Theater again in this week's episode of 'Mad Men'. Most of the staff of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce were attending an exclusive screening at the Capitol of the now-infamous Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston prize fight, waged in Lewiston, Maine, in May 25, 1965, a re-match between boxing powerhouses that help solidify the reputation of the future Muhammad Ali.

Like many locations previously featured on the show, the Capitol was past its prime by 1965 and would not make it out of the 1960s. A movie house designed by architectural wizard Thomas W. Lamb, the Capitol opened in October 1919 and helped establish the template for lavish film palaces, with 4,000 seats, a 25 x 60 feet screen, and a stage large enough to host variety shows, classical music concerts and even radio broadcasts. Not surprisingly, it was originally managed by Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel, of Radio City Music Hall fame.

By 1965, the stage productions had stopped, but the theater was still hosting spectacular film premieres such as the one on December 22 for 'Doctor Zhivago'. As the unflappable Bosley Crowther dryly notes in his film review from that premiere: "In the three hours and seventeen minutes (not counting intermission time) it takes to move Robert Bolt's dramatization of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago across the screen, a few rather major things happen."

That June, for the now forgotten Burt Lancaster western 'Hallelujah Trail', the film studio United Artists threw a promotional barbecue in front of the theater that shut down Broadway.

The theater closed in 1968, but at least it went out memorably: its last two movies were Planet Of The Apes and (starting that April) 2001: A Space Odyssey, both in glorious Cinerama.

So, what's sitting there now? Mars 2112 (and the Paramount Plaza office tower). It's too bad they didn't have Mars 2112 back in the 1960s; I'd love to see Roger Sterling get sloshed on their alien themed cocktails.

Coincidentally, by the way, our 'Mad Men' friends were attending a broadcast of a boxing match in a theater that sat only one block from the greatest live venue for boxing in the world -- Madison Square Garden, when, in its third incarnation, it sat at 50th Street and 8th Avenue.

Below: the lush interiors at the Capitol Theatre


Top picture courtesy NYPL Digital Gallery. Movie advertisement courtesy Cinema Treasures You can check out a lovely picture of Times Square in the 1960s featuring the Capitol here

Friday, September 3, 2010

The wild times of the subway graffiti era 1970-1989: at the city's worst, an art form flourishes along transit lines



The BMT Jamaica line, late 1970s (Courtesy NYT)

PODCAST #111 Art. Vandalism. Freedom. Blight. Creativity. Crime. Graffiti has divided New Yorkers since it first appeared on walls, signs and lampposts in the late 1960s. Its ascent paralleled the city's sunken financial fortunes, allowing simple markings to evolve into elaborate pieces of art. The only problem? The best examples were on the sides of subway cars which the city promptly attempted to eradicate, their attempts thwarted by clever, creative artists and a downtown culture that was slowly embracing graffiti as New York City's defining art form.

This is a history of the battle between graffiti and City Hall. And a look at the aftermath which spawned today's tough city laws and a warehouse space in Queens called 5Pointz, where graffiti masterpieces thrive in abundance today.

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: Subway Graffiti 1970-1989


TAKI 183 -- he didn't create the graffiti art movement, but his tags throughout the city inspired a New York Times investigation into the mysterious 17 year old Greek teenanger's antics, putting other taggers in the spotlight.


A ride on any subway during the 70s and 80s usually meant containment within a car coated in graffiti tags. The most artistic, colorful pieces (like the one below, by Lee Quinones, 1976) were hung on the outside. (Photo courtesy Second Avenue Sagas)



Below: Some of the astonishing work you'll find out at 5Pointz Aerosol Art Center Inc., subtitled "The Institute For Higher Burnin'."



















For more tales of the 70s-80s graffiti scene, check out the blog @149st with individual profiles of dozens of period artists and taggers. Kings of New York is a spectacular photo blog of past and current work on walls and other surfaces throughout the city.

Two early photographers and writers of the subway graffiti scene have great books on the topic -- Jack Stewart (Graffiti Kings: New York City Mass Transit Art of the 1970s) and Keith Baugh (Early New York Subway Graffiti 1973-1975: Photographs from Harlem, South Bronx, Times Square and Coney Island).

And finally, an excerpt of a short film by Steve Siegel, featuring a host of graffitified trains. And gotta love that opening sequence:

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The 'Wall-Scribblings': Egypt, Rome, Harlem 1991







Photos from East Harlem, May 21, 1991, photographs by Ted Thai (courtesy the LIFE archive)


"Graffiti or Wall-scribblings. Despite his withering touch, Time, the destroying angel, has here and there permitted some of the most fragile and evanescent things to remain as silent memorials of long past generations. Not least among these relics of ancient life and thought are the graffiti or wall-scribblings, mostly scratched by some pointed instrument or made with red chalk or charcoal.

They are found upon the colossal mausoleums and temples of Egypt, and in association with the mysterious inscriptions upon the rocks of Sinai, upon the tombs of Jerusalem, and with and around the chambers of ghostly Pompeii, while others have been brought to light within the area of the Eternal City.
.......
These scrawls, which are of all ages, are of no little interest to the antiquary and the student of human nature.
.......
Though nearly 20 centuries old, the thoughtless school-boy's scrawls, the love-sick gallant's doggerel, or the caricature of some friend, foe, or popular favorite, are still as clear as though executed by an idler of yesterday. Although many of these inscriptions are not strictly of importance, yet still they are very suggestive of the humors, vulgarities, and vices of old......."

-- from the March 6, 1881 issue of the New York Times, discussing ancient graffiti