Thursday, March 31, 2011

With the state capitol on fire, a wealth of history lost



This is not New York City related, but it pertains to the state capital. New Yorkers woke up this morning 100 years ago to see the haunting portrait above in the morning papers. The state capitol building in Albany , completed just 12 years before, caught fire on the evening of March 29, 1911, destroying most of the state library and killing one man. Many documents from the early days of New York history -- from the founding of New Amsterdam and the early colonization of the region -- were destroyed.

Images like the one above momentarily pushed aside stories and images from Triangle Factory Fire, which had just happened a few days previous.

For more images from the New York state archives, take a look here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Other scary animals that have escaped the Bronx Zoo

These 1906 Bronx zoo employees won't let this snake out of sight. (NYPL)

Escapes from the Bronx Zoo are relatively rare today, so news of a 20-inch Egyptian cobra slithering away last Friday -- its current whereabouts unknown -- struck fear and excitement in the hearts of Bronx residents. The slithery beast has even inspired its own Twitter feed @BronxZoosCobra. (Its latest Tweet: "Taking the Sex And The City Tour!!! I'm totally a SSSamantha.")

But the institution once known as the Bronx Zoological Park is a 111-year old zoo after all, and during the park's early years, animals were escaping all the time, almost yearly in fact. And the creatures making the prison breaks back then were far larger than a mere snake. Here's just a sampling, culled from some early New York Times articles:

July 1902 -- A rather plucky Mexican panther broke loose from his new home behind the puma house and crashed a noontime picnic full of women and children. Soon the grounds were buzzing with panicked families and people fleeing for indoor safety. This made life easier for the animal, who feasted upon abandoned picnic lunches. The headlines claimed, "He Eats Sandwiches and Ham for Lunch, but Balks at Pie." The panther eventually jumped into the Bronx River and swam away.

The original article [found here] makes mention of a bear that had escaped the previous summer. It is unclear whether this was the same "tiny black bear" granted to the zoo by Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 -- actually a bear named Teddy Roosevelt, years before the animals that might have inspired the 'teddy bear'.

July 1904 and 1905 -- Both snow leopards in captivity at the Bronx Zoo escaped in successive years. The first was "shot dead after an all night hunt," and the next year its mate tried to make a break for it, disappearing "like a ghost" until it was found the next morning. [source]

July 1908 -- The iguana would have been quite an exotic beast to children one hundred years ago, so imagine the shock when two Cuban iguanas escaped from their confines during a crowded summer day in the reptile house. Women and children ran to the doors. "One man sprang over a low iron fence into the alligator cage in his excitement and scrambled out again as soon as he realized where he was." They were thrown into burlap sacks and returned to their confines. [source]

August 1908 -- Later that year, an 36-foot long East Indian python (perhaps the one pictured above) briefly fled while being transferred to a pit and had to be recaptured by police officers.

November 1916 -- Most unusual is the tale of Loco, the ring-tailed cat, who escaped his cage but hung around the zoo for over two months, killing various birds and rats. Loco was a donation from a Texas animal owner, who gave the cat that particular name because he "must have eaten of the loco weed" before being captured. After feasting with abandon on the zoo's bird collection, Loco was recaptured and returned to his cage, "mus[ing] upon the good time he has had." [source]

For more information on the history of the Bronx Zoo, you can download our podcast on the subject right here (recorded in April 2010).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Worldwide Plaza, all business in a scruffy neighborhood


New York's PBS affiliate WNET tonight debuts the documentary '50th & 8th: A Skyscraper Story' about the construction of One Worldwide Plaza, the complex of buildings in Hell's Kitchen that fashioned itself as an architectural pioneer of midtown's west side. I would not have thought this exemplar of 1980s architecture, a modern try at replicating the Rockefeller Center formula and a nod to art deco, would merit an entire film, so I'm very interested in seeing where this will go.

There's no doubt that the three buildings and surrounded plaza forced a new identity upon the deteriorating west side of the 1980s and most believe it may have given the fortunes of the surrounding neighborhood's a much needed boost. The complex was designed by David Childs, at the firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; his current project can be seen ascending downtown in the from of One World Trade Center.

Worldwide Plaza replaced Madison Square Garden (or MSG III, and the first building with that name nowhere near Madison Square) which sat here from 1925 to 1968. The neighborhood was the inheritor of many vice industries by the late 19th century, particularly during Prohibition.

Eighth Avenue, as the outer west edge of Times Square, was particularly known as a harbor for prostitution in the 1960s and 70s, sometimes known as the 'Minnesota Strip', an unfortunate nickname gleaned from the supposed Midwestern origins of many of the avenue's teenage prostitutes. Check out the WNET Thirteen website for a schedule of showtimes, or check your local PBS affiliate.

NOTE: Thanks to a commenter who indicated this is an older film produced after the plaza was first built. And is being re-broadcast because WNEW is making the building a new home!

UPDATE: This is a very odd film, almost like an industrial video made to impress investors. Why do I feel like I'm watching the Matt Damon movie 'The Informant'? However, to see the neighborhood and the surrounding streets in the late 1980s make it worth sitting through. If you live or work in Hell's Kitchen (or Clinton, as the documentary prefers), you'll get even more value. But the dry British narrator isn't helping matters!

And don't miss the 'Inspirational Consultant', an actual title, they claim, brought in to assure workers that the project is worthwhile.

Photo courtesy flickr/TravelingMango

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Where they lived: Victims of the Triangle Factory Fire, the homes they left behind, a hundred years later


Lonely tenement on Avenue C and 13th Street, near many homes of the Triangle Fire victims. photo by Percy Loomis Sperr [NYPL]

From cable television to museums and campuses all over the city, you've been able to find a host of remembrances of the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory one hundred years ago. At the bottom of this post, I'll reprint my list from a couple weeks ago (with a couple new additions) outlining some easy ways to learn about the history.

I wanted to focus on something a little different. Thanks to the research of Michael Hirsch and the Kheel Center at Cornell University [found here], it's possible to actually come up with a map of the homes of all 146 victims of the Triangle fire. It would look something like the map below. Just zoom into it to look at the individual sites and take a gander at which neighborhoods and boroughs that were most affected:





NOTE: The addresses are accurate, but a few of the points are approximately placed. In a few cases, the streets no longer exist, so I placed the points in close vicinity.

To nobody's surprise, the neighborhood most devastated by the tragedy is the Lower East Side (The east side above Houston Street -- i.e. today's East Village -- didn't take that new designation until the 1960s.) There doesn't seem to be a block in the neighborhood with an empty home that day one hundred years ago.

A few years before the Triangle fire, the Lower East Side has experienced an even more ghastly tragedy -- the explosion of the General Slocum paddle steamer on June 15, 1904. Among the 1,021 victims of that horrific event, most lived in this neighborhood and specifically in the German area of Kleindeutschland. As the victims were mostly women and children, the disaster effectively marked the end of the German enclave here. New York wouldn't see such a large loss of life until September 11, 2001.

The deaths of the 146 garment workers on March 25, 1911, did not produce the same effect to the neighborhood, but certainly the loss was gravely felt in tenements and houses throughout the city. The map shows that the disaster's immediate impact reverberated even into the other boroughs.

East vs. West
Of the 146, most all of them were born in three countries -- Italy, Russia or Austria. A handful were born in the United States, presumably the children of first generation immigrants. So its no surprise most of them found homes in the Lower East Side, still the heart of immigrant life in the early 20th century. But I really didn't expect it to be so decisive. Outside of a small cluster of people who lived in Greenwich Village close to the factory, there were no victims who listed addresses anywhere on Manhattan's west side -- not in Hell's Kitchen, the Upper West Side, or anywhere else.

Yorkville and Beyond
I'm fascinated by those who lived further out, near the growing immigrant village of Yorkville on the Upper East Side, for instance. A great many took streetcars and elevated trains into work from Brooklyn and the Bronx, and some might even have taken advantage of the new subway (although in 1911, its route was very limited). No surprise that none of them lived in Queens; the ethnic neighborhoods of that borough would really flourish after the 1920s.

And then there's young Vincenza Billota, a 16 year old girl who lived out with her uncle in Hoboken, NJ -- the only one of the victims to commute into the city. Her uncle came in from New Jersey that night to identify Vincenza who burned alive inside the factory. He identified her because her shoes had recently been repaired; he recognized the cobbler's work.

Missing TenementsThere's something moving about finding and identifying the homes of the victims. Most of these people had no solid roots, no property they owned. Only an address, a home they most likely shared with family members and other tenants. Every year the sidewalks outside these addresses are marked with chalk, the names and ages written on the ground as a yearly reminder. You can look at a photo array from the most recent chalk excursions here.

They didn't live in fabulous Beaux-Arts mansions or apartment buildings. Their homes were tenements, most overcrowded and poorly maintained. Thus, many of the actual buildings themselves are gone. In the cases of the victim's homes on Monroe Street, even most of the street itself is gone, replaced with more modern housing projects. At left, 135 Cherry Street, the home of fire victim Rose Cirrito. The photo is from 1939 (courtesy NYPL); the entire row of buildings was later demolished.

509 East 13th Street was the home to two Italian girls, Antonietta Pasqualicchio and Annie L'Abate, and an older Italian woman Annina Ardito, who all lost their lives that day. But that building has been replaced with a most modern apartment.

Family and Friends
To grasp a disaster of this magnitude -- at a vantage one century later -- you have to deal with it in generalities. The victims were mostly girls, mostly immigrants, mostly uneducated. However, by singling out a particular address, the individual tragedies come into focus. And oddly, you get to place that person's life next to what inhabits that address today. In the case of the Lower East Side, some of these places are now restaurants, bars and luxury condos.

143 Essex Street was the home of two victims -- two teenage brothers Max and Sam Lehrer from Austria. Both had arrived in the United States via Ellis Island in 1909; another Austrian, Sigmund Freud, also arrived at Ellis Island that year. Last year, that building itself caught on fire.

Young Jennie Stellino had lived in New York since she was 12 years old; she died in the blaze at age 16. She walked to the factory every day from her home at 315 Bowery, one of the few with a fairly easy commute. Jennie survived the blaze but died from her burns three days later. Decades later, the building at that address became internationally renown for the tenant at its ground floor, CBGB's.

I'm not sure there's even a 35 Second Avenue anymore. The street is inhabited by a diner and a few bars today; the Anthology Film Archives sits across the street. But it was the home to three women who lost their lives that day -- Catherine Maltese and her two daughters.
________________________________________________________

There are several events lined up for this evening and throughout the weekend. You can find the whole lineup at the website Remember The Triangle Fire.

Here's some ways to get yourself caught up on the facts of the event, in time for memorial ceremonies on March 25:

TV: PBS will be airing its one-hour American Experience 'Triangle Fire', while HBO has its own documentary Remembering The Fire. Check your local listings, as both should be rerunning over the next couple days.

Press: Lots of articles will be generated about the fire, but I recommend you start with the excellent coverage by the New York Times, including a story last week about researcher Michael Hirsch and his quest to identify the last six remaining victims of the fire whose names until now had been unknown. [New York Times]

Books: There are several books in print, both non-fiction and narrative retelling, but the one I can most passionately recommend is Dave Von Drehle's 'Triangle' The Fire That Changed America', focusing on some of the early voices for worker's rights and unrest prior to the tragedy. And Von Drehle's depiction of the fire itself is both methodical and heartbreaking.

Websites: The School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University has organized an extraordinary repository of information about the event and the aftermath, including a huge collection of photographs and audio interviews from some of the survivors. [Remember The Triangle Factory Fire]

Podcast: And finally, I recorded a podcast on the Triangle Factory Fire back in April 2008 (Episode #42) that gives a dramatic overview of the event. You can check it out by downloading it straight from this link or getting it on iTunes from our back catalog feed Bowery Boys: New York City History Archive.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: fixture of glamour in New York's nightlife


Above: Liz with Sammy Davis Jr., with her husband Richard Burton kissing (!) another woman*. I'm not sure where this is taken, but as it's from the LIFE collection by photographer Leonard Mccombe, it's probably from the evening of October 20, 1964, after the opening of Davis' hit musical 'Golden Boy'.

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011), who died this morning in Los Angeles at age 79, was a fixture of New York nightlife, comfortable in smoky nightclubs like the Waldorf-Astoria's Empire Room and the Copacabana in the 1960s. She even became a staple of 1970s glitterati, evidenced by her 46th birthday party at Studio 54, a soiree thrown for her by the fashion designer Halston and her good friend Andy Warhol.

From Victor Bockris' biography on Warhol: "Elizabeth Taylor's birthday cake was baked in her image and wheeled out by the Rockettes dancing in choreographed precision."

From one of Taylor's many biographies:
"Elizabeth and her mother had spent three whole days in Chicago, en route to New York, going on a shopping spree at Marshall Field .... In New York, it continued: they shopped round the clock for her bridal trousseau. Conrad Hilton had said to her, 'Elizabeth, when you walk through the doors of the Waldorf, I want you to feel perfectly at home.' When she went to register, the desk clerk handed her an envelope. Inside was a block of Waldorf-Astoria shares, making her a part-owner of the place right away. She felt perfectly at home."

-- From Elizabeth: The Life of Elizabeth Taylor By Alexander Walker

Below: from a 1986 Life Magazine photograph, a tribute to the actress at Lincoln Center with some of her famous friends, including Warhol, Roddy McDowell and Maureen Stapleton





*Thanks to a reader for pointing out that the 'other' woman was May Britt, Sammy Davis' wife!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Notes from the Podcast (#121) Fraunces Tavern

Courtesy Flickr/Harry J. Bizzarro

A slight correction:
I inferred in this week's show that the very first Supreme Court -- with Chief Justice John Jay -- met in Federal Hall. They actually first convened on February 2, 1790, in a building very close by to Fraunces -- the Royal Exchange Building. Also called the Merchant Exchange, the Court's first home was located at Broad and Water streets, making it practically Fraunces' neighbor. At the time there were only six justices that served on the court.

It was completely unsuited for such important work. According to writings from 1920 by Joseph Bucklin Bishop, the Exchange was "a very curious structure, for its ground floor was open on all sides, and in tempestuous weather the merchants who gathered there for business found it extremely uncomfortable. It had a second story which was enclosed and consisted of a single room" [source] Here's an illustration of this odd building:


By 1791, the court moved to Philadelphia. A more dignified Merchants Exchange was later built in New York and featured a well-regarded statue of Alexander Hamilton in its rotunda. Unfortunately this building was promptly burned down in the Great Fire of 1835.

Oldest Building?
So, is Fraunces Tavern really the oldest building in Manhattan? It really depends on how much leeway you're willing to give it. There's been a continually standing structure there since 1719, easily outdistancing two other Manhattan buildings, St. Paul's Church on Broadway and Fulton streets (1766) , and the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights (1765).

Fraunces, however, has gone through a host of radical changes to its appearance, with floors added and removed, its rooms reconfigured and its exterior entirely altered as to render it almost unrecognizable. A renovation in the 1900s by architect William Mersereau did bring it closer to its original state. There are certainly elements from the original structure that remain. Is that enough to bestow it the title Manhattan's oldest building?

There are several buildings in Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens that lay claim to being much older. You can read about some of them here.

Downstairs at Fraunces:
You can read the story about the alleged 'dungeon' underneath Fraunces Tavern here: MAY HIDE DARK SECRET OF FRAUNCES'S TAVERN; Proprietor Likely to Conceal Noisome Dungeon from "Blisters." SO HE TERMS THE BUYERS

Places to Visit:
You can find directions and hours to the Fraunces Tavern Museum here. We recommend hanging a right at the second floor and watching the short introductory video before exploring the room.

When you're done with the museum, head on up Pearl Street one block north to see some curious ruins under foot, the remnants of old Lovelace's Tavern. Bricks embedded in the sidewalk also indicate where the Stadt Huys (or New Amsterdam's city hall building) once stood.

Learn more:
Pearl Street sat along the edge of Manhattan in the 1660s, meaning the land Fraunces sits upon today would have been water and docks. This interactive map from PBS's Dutch New York display illustrates this pretty effectively.

Curious to learn more about New York during the Revolution? Check our two-part podcast series from 2008: The British Invasion: New York 1776 and Life In British New York 1776-1783.

There's not any real contemporary books on Fraunces Tavern history, but you might find this artifact from 1919 of interest -- A Sketch of Fraunces Tavern and Those Connected With Its History, a short 'official' history by Henry Russell Drowne, a member of the Sons of the Revolution.

Drowne was best known as a collector of coins and printed money but was active in New York historical preservation as well. In stark contrast to his name, Drowne died in a house fire on the Upper West Side in 1934.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fraunces Tavern: Raise your glass to the Revolution!

Courtesy NYPL

PODCAST Fraunces Tavern is one of America's most important historical sites of the Revolutionary War and a reminder of the great importance of taverns on the New York way of life during the Colonial era. This revered building at the corner of Pearl and Broad street was the location of George Washington's farewell address to his Continental Army officers and one of the first government buildings of the young United States of America. John Jay and Alexander Hamilton both used Fraunces as an office.

As with many places connected to the country's birth -- where fact and legend intermingle -- many mysteries still remain. Was the tavern owner Samuel Fraunces one of America's first great black patriots? Did Samuel use his position here to spy upon the British during the years of occupation between 1776 and 1783? Was his daughter on hand to prevent an assassination attempt on the life of George Washington? And is it possible that the basement of Fraunces Tavern could have once housed a dungeon?

ALSO: Learn about the two deadly attacks on Fraunces Tavern -- one by a British war vessel in the 1770s, and another, more violent act of terror that occurred in its doorway 200 years later!

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: Fraunces Tavern

One of the oldest, diverse and historic rooms in New York City, the Long Room played host to Colonial Era dance classes, George Washington's farewell speech (pictured below), decades of guests as a boardinghouse, and now a replica of tavern life in early America. [Columbia U]





How the interior may have looked in the 19th century, as Fraunces became more a lodging house frequented by longshoremen, sailors and dock workers. [NYPL]


The changing facades of Fraunces: this sketch is from some point in the 19th century, when additional floors were added to the original structure. You can see the difficulty architect William Merserau might have faced in the 1900s when trying to reconstruct the building to reflect its original condition.


This doesn't seem like it could even be the same building, and yet, there's the sign for the tavern hanging over the second floor and a street sign for Broad Street to the left. This picture is between 1890 and 1904, before the structural changes. [LOC]


After reconstruction, somewhere between 1910-1920, looking almost as it does today. In the distance to the right you'll see a bit of the elevated train line. [LOC]


By the 1970s, modern skyscrapers permanently change the feel of the Financial District, but Fraunces holds firm.


The parking lot across the street would soon be replaced by the towering Goldman Sachs building. Interestingly, underneath these cars lies the remnants of Dutch New Amsterdam, including the earlier Lovelace's Tavern. [LOC]


Samuel Fraunces, in a portrait of the tavern owner painted between 1770-1785, giving little clue to what many consider to be his real racial identity. The lineage of the man nicknamed 'Black Sam' continues to be debated to this day.


Fraunces was the scene of a relatively recent attack in 1975 when members of the Puerto Rican nationalist group Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN) placed a bomb in one of the tavern's doorways, killing 4 people and seriously injuring many others. (You can find the picture below and many others -- including the note left at the scene taking responsibility for the attack -- at this Latin American studies website.)


Fraunces Tavern makes an wildly inaccurate appearance in a 1992 animated film, loosely based on the life of Washington.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How some rough Saint Patrick's Day hangovers almost destroyed New York

The harbor in 1730, with a view of New York's Fort George by the engraver John Carwitham

It was 270 years ago this week that a truly foul period in New York history began, starting with a host of fires sprouting up throughout lower Manhattan and ending with several black residents of the city hanged and accused of treason, a reign of terror known as the Conspiracy of 1741 (or the Negro Plot of 1741), a hellish inquisition fueled by hysteria, racism and rumor.

Believing that local slave and freed blacks -- along with white 'traitor' conspirators -- had conspired to wreck havoc in the city, the authorities gathered up suspects and accused them of crimes based on scant evidence. In the end, over 30 people were executed for their part in this supposed 'conspiracy'. Modern historians are unsure such a plot existed at all, and if it had, most of the executed would still have been innocent of wrong-doing.

This violence, which kept the city in a grip of heightened suspicion for most of the spring of 1741, have often been called New York's version of the Salem witch trials.

For a rich description of these events and some measured speculation to its cause, I direct you to Jill Lepore's excellent book from a few years ago New York Burning, one of the few books that turned on my enthusiasm for New York City history.

The reason I'm bringing this up today is that St. Patrick's Day -- or rather, the Catholic Feast of St. Patrick from which the holiday derives -- actually figures into the story. Just like the modern holiday, it appears that both Catholics and non-Catholics took part in the March 17th celebration, and in particular, the imbibing. According to 'Gotham' by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, soldiers at their posts at Fort George on March 18th were "recuperating in their barracks from their hearty celebration" the night before. Essentially, an epidemic of hangovers.

As a result, the fort was scantily patrolled that morning. As guards slept the morning away, unknown arsonists stole into the fort and set fire to several buildings inside, including the old governor's house, once the home of Peter Stuyvesant (who, trust me, never would have allowed this to happen). The blaze quickly spread to the chapel , the soldiers barracks, and even to buildings outside the fort perimeter. It might have blossomed into a raging inferno that would have consumed the city had it not rained and doused the blaze from spreading further. (Thank you St. Pats!)

Had the men at Fort George been more alert, perhaps they would have identified the mysterious culprit. Not only would it have prevented the fire, it might have clamped down the later hysteria and prevented further arson from occurring throughout the next few weeks. The alleged 'conspiracy', either real or imagined, might not have materialized at all.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The odd bridge over Broadway vs. Knox the Hatter


The bulky and yet somewhat elegant contraption above is the short-lived Loew Bridge, which once hung over Broadway at Fulton Street back in 1867 and 1868, an early cast-iron pedestrian bridge at one of the busiest intersections in the city. It was named not for its architect, but for the comptroller of New York at the time, Charles E. Loew.

Crossing the street was indeed a challenge then, in an era of no traffic lights and conveyances operated by horses. A couple blocks to the north lay the heart of city government and the publishing industry, not to mention St. Paul's Church and the Astor House, New York's finest early hotel. (Both are seen in the illustration above.)

The bridge, which opened in April 1867, provided a respite to New Yorkers frustrated with dirty streets and impossible crossing options for pedestrians. One fanatic was even inspired to pen a lengthy poem to its honor. Unfortunately, it was not popular with surrounding business owners, particularly the one at 212 Broadway. That storefront, the hatter of one Charles Knox, was obscured by the bridge's latticework and decreased business opportunities, he alleged.

It seems unusual that one businessman would be able to effectively crumble a new bridge to the ground, but Mr. Knox had the city's sympathies. Two years earlier, his original shop had been destroyed in the same fire that incinerated Barnum's American Museum. However he managed to unite some business owners of the area and eventually "brought suit against the city for $25,000 damages." [source]

Most likely, Knox was more concerned with the belief that he was losing business to a rival hat shop across the street. (After all, to paraphrase a popular cliche, the hats are always cleaner on the other side.) Thanks to his efforts, the city ripped the bridge down less than two years after first erecting it, and citizens went back to their filthy and treacherous street crossings.

Back to square one, it seems. I think the situation is very well summarized in this letter from 'B.' to the New York Times, published on December 20, 1868:

"Taking down the Broadway Bridge appears to cause few remarks from the press, and when they have spoken they have rather been in favor of the removal.

"It appears to me the bridge, at certain periods was a great convenience, notwithstanding its needless height. When the snow slush is a foot thick, and the street blocked up with stages and trucks in a dead lock, it is a great accommodation to have a bridge to cross. It is almost impossible for women and children to cross Broadway, near Fulton Street, at such times; and if men get over it is at the risk of being covered with filth.

"Before the bridge was built, the writer has walked from Liberty Street to near Wall before getting across. At that time the papers were continually talking about 'relief to Broadway"; but since the bridge was built, that has ceased. I think we shall hear it again on the first thaw after a heavy snowstorm, when crowds will be seen standing at the corners wondering how they will be able to get over the street.

"If the bridge is an injury to private property, the owners should be remunerated for the damage; not that a few shopkeepers, because their business is injured, or they think it is, should be the means of inconveniencing the whole public by having it removed.

"If that were the case with railroads, every farmer would have the power of stopping the road going over its land, because he thought it injured it -- and there would not be a railroad in this country."

Images above from the New York Public Library digital collection

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bowery Boys give a shout-out to filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman

Taking a weekend break from history to offer congratulations to our close friend Nancy Schwartzman who has also occasionally done some research for a few Bowery Boys podcasts in the past. Nancy is a documentary filmmaker based in Brooklyn, and she is piecing together her second short film now, called xoxosms. And she just successfully made her fundraising goal on Kickstarter to finish producing the project later this year!

"xoxosms is a documentary about the TRUE love story of Gus and Jiyun -- a home schooled 19-year-old from a religious family in small-town Illinois and a 19-year-old Korea-born New York City art student -- who met nearly a year ago in possibly the only place two people so different might ever find each other: The Internet." What makes the film unusual is that both teenagers, fostering their relationship only through virtual menas, managed to save every email and chat conversation they ever had together.

Here's the video to her Kickstarter pitch. We'll hope to see the completed film in the near future. Congratulations Nancy from Greg and Tom!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Blue Bell Tavern: War and romance in Washington Heights


The Blue Bell Tavern, a rustic pit stop along Bloomingdale Road, witness to the changing fortunes of war. (Courtesy NYPL)

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

LOCATION: Blue Bell Tavern
181th Street and Broadway, Manhattan
In operation Early 1720s-1915(?)

An old stone tavern once stood high upon the bluffs of Upper Manhattan, in an area many years later referred to as Washington Heights. The Blue Bell Tavern sat off Bloomingdale Road (where Broadway stretches today) nestled in a grove of trees, a modest two-story dwelling alit at all hours with wanderers.

One cold, stormy night some evening in November 1783, a damp and exhausted figure strode up to the door, a young woman who had escaped from her home many miles away. She was there to meet her lover who had already arrived at the Blue Bell, a man soaked, in disarray and wearing what certainly would have been a common sight for the day -- a British uniform.

This man was a sergeant in the British military stationed in the Hudson River Valley. But the army was now retreating. Indeed, they were leaving New York that very month.

But he had fallen in love with this woman, who (as these sort of stories go) we know little about. We do know her parents disapproved of the British sergeant and would only relent to their marriage if he agreed to desert the army and remain in the United States.

On that rainy evening, the sergeant and his beleaguered love were married, here at the Blue Bell Tavern. As the story goes, it was a Quaker ceremony, for there were no other officiators that night at the tavern.

The Blue Bell, situated at today's intersection of 181st Street and Broadway, was built in mid 1720s as a home and renovated into the type of pleasant inn that, by 1753, the venerable Cadwallader Colden (not the former mayor, but his grandfather and later governor of New York) could find "very comfortable" food and lodging with his friend James Delancey, the state's lieutenant governor.

The tavern might have faded peacefully into oblivion if not for the Revolutionary War. When angry New Yorkers attacked the King George statue in Bowling Green at the foot of the island, his stone head ended up on a pole in front of the Blue Bell.

While the Continental Army fled from Manhattan during the month of September 1776, officers stationed here at the Blue Bell assessed their grim situation and coordinated the army's next steps. With the tavern located so close to a key pathway out of town, it also became a headquarters and lodging for British officers after Washington's army left. At one point, even Colonel William Howe, head of the British forces, himself stayed here.

It was during early battles in New Jersey that one British officer, one Colonel Ralle, found true love at the Blue Bell in the form of the innkeeper's sister, and he married her there within the day. It would not be the last torrid romance to blossom here.

In November of 1783, George Washington and his victorious army re-entered New York, this time to push the British out of town and experience a new, free American nation from the vantage of the ravaged port city. "I remember well our march up the hill, and the noble appearance of George Washington as he sat on his big bay horse," said a 'veteran' of the war in Appleton's Journal.

George would even stay for an evening at the Blue Bell, awakening early to prepare his army's grand entry down Bloomingdale Road and into the city. (Another important tavern of the day, the Bull's Head, would also play a prominent role in Washington's arrival into the city.) But on that day, they would add two more people to their procession.

The colonel and his new bride -- the ones whose rendezvous at the Blue Bell led to their Quaker marriage -- emerged from behind the building and called out Washington's name. Given his rumpled British uniform, I imagine this created quite an uproar. The pair were taken into custody, and the British officer recounted his romantic tale. He wished to desert the army and join the Americans if only they would provide protection for him and his young bride. Indeed, with so many Loyalists still in the city, the soldier's betrayal would certainly have been met with retaliation.

The tale apparently amused the troops, flush with the excitement of victory. Somebody even wrote a poem in the couple's honor. You can read the whole thing here, though it begins: "A soldier and a maiden fair, Helped by shy little Cupid, Fled from the camp and momma's chair, (Such guardians, how stupid!), And to the Blue Bell did repair, To have themselves a-looped." We can assume with the lighthearted tone of the poem that things turned out well for the happy couple.

Below: A miniature of the Blue Bell, displayed at the Museum of the City of New York when it opened the doors to its new Fifth Avenue home in 1930. (Courtesy LOC)

The old tavern passed through many owners (and many names) through the 19th century and eventually returned to its original purpose as a residence. One old source suggests that the building burned to the ground in 1876, though it may have survived this blaze into the new century. Whatever structure stood here then was torn down by 1915. But tales of the Blue Bell entered nostalgic accounts of the Revolutionary War almost immediately, as 19th century historians struggled to piece together the American narrative from those who still remembered it.

The Blue Bell lived on long after its demolition in a most curious way -- as a well-known miniature housed at the Museum of the City of New York. An issue of Popular Science Magazine from 1930 observes the construction and installation of the Blue Bell exhibit, which made its debut that year in the museum's new home on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.

On some days, you can go to the former spot of the Blue Bell Tavern and experience a Gothic romance of your own. Standing there today is the RKO Coliseum, once one of Manhattan's largest movie theaters, still operating as Coliseum Cinemas. (Here's a street view of that corner.)

Below: The Coliseum in Washington Heights, date unknown (but there's a vaudeville bill on one of the marquees!)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Odds and Ends: Castles, panoramas and Matt Damon


Above: Fonthill Castle in the neighborhood of Riverdale in the Bronx, built in 1852 as the personal kingdom (if only briefly) of one of the world's great Shakespearean actors, Edwin Forrest. The actor was born today, 205 years ago. The lavish home has long since been a part of the campus of the College of Mount Saint Vincent. (Courtesy NYPL)

The Queens Museum Panorama is strange little miniature of the city erected for the World's Fair in 1964 and occasionally updated today. (The last addition, according to the museum website, was the museum's neighbor Citi Field.) a commission of Robert Moses who sometimes carried on as though the city it mimicked could be as equally remade.

If you can locate the areas of Vinegar Hill, Van Nest, the former San Juan Hill and both Chelsea neighborhoods on a map, then make your way posthaste to 4th Annual Panorama Challenge this Friday, March 11, a colossal "geographical trivia-based" competition using the city of miniatures as a game board. Visit the Queens Museum website for more information, or email Mark@Levysuniqueny.com to register a team.

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I'm not going to give you a flat out review on the quality of the Matt Damon film 'The Adjustment Bureau'. However the movie is a real celebration of New York City, filmed in what seems to be dozens of locations, including The Rose Room at the New York Public Library, Liberty Island, Red Hook, Fort Tryon, the top of Rockefeller Center, even the floating mall that is Pier 17. If the movie is a hit, it could sprout a cottage industry of 'Adjustment Bureau' related tours. Damon even rides a Circle Line! Get the lowdown from New Yorkology.

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The Apollo Theater is getting its day in the sun at the Museum of the City Of New York with a terrific new collaboration with the Smithsonian, Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment. But why stroll the galleries yourself when on March 19th, you can join a group tour led by Billy Mitchell, the theater's revered 'in-house historian' whose been with the Apollo for over 45 years. Find information on the tour and the exhibit at the museum's website [Museum of the City of New York]

And we mention Billy in our own podcast through the history of the Apollo Theater, recorded in 2008. You can download it directly from here or look for it in our Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Brooklyn's Bergen Street and the firstborn lady of New York

Bergen Street is lovely trek through the borough's most historic sites and neighborhoods -- from its western end through Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, dipping near Park Slope and up through Prospect Heights, and past old Grant Square and the Weeksville Heritage Center, the remnants of an early 19th century free black community. Indirectly, the street's name also has a surprising connection to early New York women's history.

The roughly outlined territory of New Netherlands was charted by the Dutch in the 1610s, building upon the early explorations by Henry Hudson, Adraien Block and others. By 1620, the Dutch had a fort in Albany and became trading partners the local Algonquin tribes. Four years later, it was an official province, with a budding settlement on the tip of Mannahatta

Its earliest Europeans settlers were all male, but Dutch women soon made the voyage over. Among the very first women was young Catalina Trico, all of eighteen years old when she joined her new husband Joris Jansen Rapelje aboard a vessel for the new territory. The pair were actually married days before their life-changing voyage.

The young couple would prosper in New Amsterdam. Rapelje would become an early leader in New Amsterdam, and the family would own a large farm across the water in Breukelen. Catalina would live into her 80s, witness to the British takeover of New Amsterdam in 1664 and the rapid growth of the newly named New York.

In 1625, Catalina gave birth to her first daughter -- in fact, the first daughter ever born in European parents in the Dutch territory. Her name was Sara (or Sarah) Rapalje.

Now here's the modern Brooklyn connection. When Sarah was all of fourteen years old, she was betrothed to the owner of an early tobacco plantation, a man named Hans Hansen Bergen (from Bergen, Norway). Hans and Sarah moved to a large property around today's Brooklyn Navy Yard, an estate she maintained long after her husband's death.

Descendants with the names of Rapalje and Bergen would feature prominently in Brooklyn history. When the streets of the early city of Brooklyn were delineated in the early 19th century, they were ultimately fastened with the name of important families. Hans and Sarah were not forgotten. Years later, the Bergens would not only have a street named for them, but an entire neighborhood (Bergen Beach) and, much later, even a couple subway stops.

Pic courtesy Flickr/wallyg

Friday, March 4, 2011

Mrs. Bigge Trout: On the passing of Barnum's prized fish

Trout by Currier & Ives, 1872. Sadly there are no extant images of Mrs. Trout.

I could not let this week pass without mentioning a sadness that fell over lower Manhattan 150 years ago today. A lament over the number of Southern states seceding from the union? The grief of Democrats over the inauguration that very day of a new American president, that uppity Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln? Concerns over the raucous administration of Mayor Fernando Wood?

No! It was the death of New York's best known trout, known to all by her regal name, Mrs. Bigge Trout.

Mrs. Trout has been all but forgotten in the annals of both fish and human history. She would have been one of dozens of ill-kept aquatic creatures in the basement of Barnum's American Museum, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street, at the foot of City Hall Park.

The museum was an amalgam of delights, from wax figures to 'freaks' of nature, murals of historical reenactments to temperance entreaties in the lecture hall. But showman P.T. Barnum also specialized in a few live animals.

Fish were an especially popular delight to mid 19th century New Yorkers in a world without private aquariums. The museum featured a range of exotic fish such as "the angel, peacock, four-eyed cherub, cow, sturgeon, porcupine, and Spanish Lady as well as the squirrel, crimson cavaretta, parrot, grouper, zebra and yellow snapper." Long after the passing of Mrs. Trout, Barnum would expand the aquatic feature to briefly include two doomed Beluga whales.

In 1861, the large, beloved Delaware trout would have been quite the popular attraction because she was pregnant. Very pregnant. According to the New York Daily Tribune, Mrs. Trout received her fatal injuries while attempting "to bring into the motley world seven thousand and sixty eggs at once." The paper applauds her gusto in her attempt to increase "the census of the piscatorial kingdom by a number almost fabulous."

The writer speculates: "Probably the odd sixty proved her ruin, but she is by no means the first who has fallen a victim to overweening ambition."

Let me be clear here. I was reading this old issue of the Tribune looking for a more serious subject, and this, the death of Mrs. Bigge Trout, came before articles on the country's impending strife, events that would lead to the Civil War. Urgency was apparently not a requirement for story placement in 1861.

Although Bigge -- may I call her Bigge? -- died on February 28th, her passing was reported in the March 4th issue with great fanfare (and some serious tongue in cheek).

If descriptions are to be believed, museum workers wore black, including the man in the box office with "crape on his hat." Even the other animals, trapped in their confines and plaster dioramas, were reportedly sullen that day.

In all seriousness, Barnum's would have offered New Yorkers the closest approximation to a modern 'natural history' experience, although proper care of the animals would have been a principal concern only to the extent that living creatures sell more tickets than dead ones. (Although there were plenty of those as well, stuffed and mounted throughout.)

The Tribune mentions that Mrs. Trout was "interred with all the honors" but does not list her final resting place. Morbidly, I wonder if that interment might have been the dinner plate of another museum inhabitant. "Her mourning friends, the other fishes, were prevented, by prior engagements, from following the remains to their last resting place."

So this weekend, pour a little out for Bigge on this, the 150th anniversary of her passing to that great Barnum spectacle in the sky.

You can read the original article here. If you want more information on Barnum's American Museum, check out our podcast on the subject from 2008.

Below: A page from the 1850 Barnum's Museum guide, from CUNY's excellent interactive website on the museum




And finally, an advertisement from July 1860, unveiling some of the delights that would have been in the museum at around the time of Mrs. Trout's death. It's really worth your time to click the image and read through these. Don't miss the Giant Baby!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Let There Be Light: Brooklyn illuminates Manhattan with a spotlight that 'will burn your skin at three hundred feet'


That Gotham glow: The powerful Sperry searchlight drapes the dark city in light. The Woolworth Building is lit up like a candle.

A thin, bright streak of light brushes across the sky and dances off the clouds above. With few buildings over fifteen stories and the city's electrical lights at a fraction of the intensity that they are today, the white piercing beam would have awakened the night sky, the most powerful illumination in the sky with the exception of the moon.

It was March of 1919, and the device creating this expressionistic Gotham nightscape was the Sperry Searchlight.

Since the first arc lights installed along Broadway in 1880, New Yorkers had grown accustomed to electric light. In fact, Times Square and the stretches of Broadway had become New York's entertainment capital because of it. But searchlights were still a bit of a novelty, devices more associated with wartime. Innovations in electrical light changed how wars were even fought; combatants in World War I aimed spots to the skies to search for enemy zeppelins and scoured the grounds below for encroaching forces.

New Yorkers would have been used to seeing searchlights atop the city's newest, tallest buildings. The first New Year's celebration at One Times Square used a searchlight to blanket stunned crowds below. Both the Flatiron Building and the Metropolitan Life Tower in Madison Square were equipped with searchlights during elections. They were an effective way to present information. For the 1908 presidential election, the New York Herald announced that a searchlight atop the Met Life building would swing north if William Howard Taft won and south if the victory went to William Jennings Bryan. That night, the beam turned north.

But the Sperry Searchlight was different. The powerful device, created in the mid 1910s, was described by a science journal of the day in 1917 as 'the world's most powerful searchlight' and as bright as 'the fiercest sunlight'. "The heat of its focused beam is so intense that it will set paper afire at a distance of two hundred and fifty feet .... It will burn your skin at three hundred feet.'

This intense searchlight was the product of Brooklyn innovator Elmer Ambrose Sperry, whose greatest invention, the gyrocompass, was quickly adopted by the United States Navy and almost immediately changed sea travel forever.

From the Sperry Gyroscope Company -- the ten-floor building still stands at 40 Flatbush Avenue Ext. by the Brooklyn entrance to the Manhattan Bridge -- the inventor and his team created a host of new items, many for the military. (Did you know that the Sperry Company created the first airplane autopilot?)

In 1919, one version of his new and improved searchlight made a test run, presumably atop the roof of the Sperry building. If you look at where the building is on a map, you can almost trace the beam from the roof along the line of its projection.

Over the Brooklyn Bridge, bouncing off the first line of buildings along the east of Manhattan, and illuminating three of New York's tallest and best known buildings of the day -- the Singer Building (center left), the Park Row building (center right), and the majestic Woolworth Building (the tallest beacon-like structure, center right).

Images like this one weren't just documents of technological success. (Although good night photography itself was a pretty nifty trick, even in 1919.) They helped build the mythology of the city, which in 1919 was about to go down the rabbit hole of Art Deco and inspire new architects to populate the skyline with more ambitious and futuristic towers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rediscovering the rediscovery of a 350-year-old city view


This is not a land of hobbits. Despite looking like an illustration from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, the map above is actual drawing made of early New Amsterdam as it looked to one cartographer in 1661. It's most likely an alternate image of New Amsterdam by the city's surveyor Jacques Cortelyou who provides us with some of the first bird's-eye drawings ever made of Manhattan. Or else, it's a drawing by another artist derived from Cortelyou's more famous image of the young town.

You can see a full color version of this very map here. Upon its re-discovery in the mid-19th century, the crude map was elaborately repainted and enhanced.

Its full title is "The Duke's plan: a description of the Towne of Mannados: or New Amsterdam as it was in September 1661 … Anno Dominus 1664." That last date holds the secret of the map; it was commissioned not by the Dutch, but by the British, who took over the port city in a near-bloodless invasion in September 1664. Most likely the original map was completed by Cortelyou in 1661, then later revised by an unknown artist (or perhaps by Cortelyou himself) for New Amsterdam's new owners, with a flattering array of British vessels in the water.

I think I'll let New York city leaders from 1859 do the talking here, from a yearly manual of Common Council business, discussing the map when it was newly discovered in the possession of the British Museum archives:

"It is not an unreasonable supposition that the English officers, being desirous of presenting some pictorial illustration of the newly-acquired city to their master, the Duke of York, made inquiry for a plan of the city and were presented with this; and, having added the agreeable accessories of British men-of-war in the harbor, they dressed it up in its present shape, added the date 1664, and forwarded it to England, where it has hitherto been preserved in silent obscurity."

The only building labelled in the little 'Governor's House' right above Fort Amsterdam, the purported home of Peter Stuyvesant and a building later named White Hall. Not a surprise to discover that the building that sits near that spot today is Whitehall Ferry Terminal. You can probably figure out where a couple other modern features of the city sit as well.

The 1859 manual gives makes a detailed, if rather quaint, stroll through the streets of the map above, an interesting look at both early New Amsterdam and mid-19th century New York's version of New Amsterdam -- two very different things. Some of sites that may sound familiar to you will be, for instance, Kolck pond (Collect Pond), the Heere Graft (a water canal that once ran down the length of today's Broad Street) and the good ole City Wall.