Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dr. Johannes La Montagne: Manhattan's first physician

Nothing underscores the harshness of early New Amsterdam more than the notion that the Dutch settlement, which first formed at the tip of Manhattan in 1625, didn't actually have a trained physician for almost twelve years.

Most likely, in these earliest years, medical emergencies were handled by ship surgeons and non-professionals skilled in a set of rudimentary practices. More practiced professionals eventually came, such as the man who can lay claim to being Manhattan's first practicing physician Johannes La Montagne (also known as Jean Mousnieer de la Montagne), a Huguenot who arrived in 1637 and initially settled outside the colony in the village of Haarlem.

Johannes soon became "the only doctor in Manhattan in whom the settlers had any confidence," practicing surprisingly sophisticated innovations in Dutch medicine.

Shockingly, before La Montagne, if one needed actual surgery, one went to the barber. According to one old history, "it might be remarked that at that time barbers were commonly looked upon as surgeons. Any skilled barber was likely to be applied to for surgical procedures."

These 'barber-surgeons', adroit in "performing minor operations", mostly worked on ships and were hardly skilled in the modern advances of 17th century medicine. Eventually La Montagne was able to regulate these barber-surgeons himself, issuing permits to those practicing in the colony and even those who sailed out of New Amsterdam ports.

Like the millions of doctors who would follow in his footsteps, Johannes would soon benefit handsomely from his expertise, gaining a vote in the first official voting council of the new colony under director-general William Kieft.

Johannes was also the first of many Manhattan physicians who was also versed in the art of networking; within a year he became Kieft's right hand man and an extension of of the director-general's wishes, however misguided. He even briefly took over a small farm (around the area of upper Central Park today) maintaining the production of tobacco.

Unfortunately, this devotion to Kieft and the desires of the Dutch West India Company over the needs of the colonists proved to help undermine the new colony, eventually leading to Kieft's ouster and replacement by Peter Stuyvesant. To his credit, La Montague then won over the steadfast Stuyvesant, who kept him on as a member of his council.

He and his family stayed in the colony after its possession by the British, and it is believed to have spent the remainder of his life in Albany.  Today, descendants of the good doctor have set up their very own genealogical society. 

This article originally ran on May 9, 2009. Original is here

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cheers to New York Fleet Week and a safe Memorial Day

At the helm of yet another watery craft, a visiting sailor on shore leave charts a course through Central Park with a new friend. Taken 1943, by Peter Stackpole, courtesy LIFE Images

Cue the Leonard Bernstein!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fantasy in flames: The end of Coney Island's Dreamland

Dreamland's heavenly glow, felled by a hellish fire

Tomorrow (May 27) will mark the 100th anniversary of a very unusual tragedy upon the landscape of Coney Island, a terrible blaze that consumed one of its most popular attractions -- Dreamland amusement park. The swift and destructive fire, occuring just two months after another horrifying conflagration (at the Triangle Factory Fire), is considered by many to be the largest fire in New York history until the 2001 World Trade Center attack.

The nighttime fire started, appropriately enough, at an amusement called the Hell Gate (pictured below) and swiftly spread from one highly flammable structure to the next. By morning, the park was almost entirely destroyed, a charred ruin.

But never fear! Enterprising park owner charged admission for those wishing to view the blackened remains.

And the spirit of morbid curiosity survives! The Coney Island Museum debuts The Cosmorama of the Great Dreamland Fire, "a 360-degree immersive cyclorama" that promises to relive the drama. Visit their website for more information.

ALSO: Check out our two podcasts on the history of Coney Island, especially if you intend to head out there this summer: Coney Island: The Golden Age and Coney Island: 20th Century Sideshow. Download them for free from those links or from our iTunes page for Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive.

Below: The sinister Hell Gate, where the fire started, and the aftermath

All pictures courtesy Library of Congress

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tornado tourism: A curious reaction to a Queens disaster

Woodhaven, Queens, in the aftermath of a tornado, July 1895

The destructive force of tornado season has made itself abundantly evident in the Midwest this week, and New Yorkers can develop a false sense of security by the rarity of twister activity here. But tornados do make their way to the five boroughs, both recently, such as last year's well documented storms in Brooklyn and Queens**, and many times in the past, with deadly outcomes.

On the afternoon of July 13, 1895, a horrendous tornado -- a "hellish wind" -- ripped apart the New Jersey town of Cherry Hill. A New York Times reported that "nearly every building in the place bears evidence of the force of its power." Some claim the village's name became so associated with that destructive storm that it later had to change its name to North Hackensack.

That same storm swept into New York, whipping through Manhattan via Harlem, leapt across the East River and struck the village of Woodhaven. The rather unusual reaction of New Yorkers to this storm caught my attention, as reported by the New York Sun: "Yesterday was another eventful day in the history of Woodhaven, Long Island. The tornado on Saturday that killed one, wounded forty, demolished fifteen houses and partially wrecked thirty more, was followed by the largest crowd of sightseers that ever collected in town limits." The paragraph ends, "Altogether it was a great day in the town."

Throngs of locals from New York and Brooklyn took the newly constructed elevated railroads into Queens to witness the carnage, to help out the victims or, in very isolated cases, snag a souvenir of this rare event. The Sun reports that over 100,000 people visited the site over the next day, and while most were there to assist those in need -- a genuine outpouring -- still others came merely to witness the pandemonium.

Below: an illustration on the schoolhouse, from the New York Tribune:

For those lucky to own Woodhavens saloons -- and there were many, this being near the former Union Course racetrack -- the vicious tragedy drew bewildered drinkers. "The saloons that were not wrecked were open. Some of those that were wrecked had beer on tap, and the crowd drank as fast as the spigots could be put in the kegs. Nobody went thirsty." [Sun]

The tornado tore up pieces of the village and redistributed them at random. One man had four roofs in his backyard; cows and chickens were deposited into new homes. The Sun reports the bodies of dozens of chickens, plucked of their feathers by the winds.

This being the days before FEMA and decent insurance plans, many families were left to beg.  Many of the gawkers and sightseers began pulling money from their wallets. An enterprising lawyer took an empty beer keg and asked people to fill it with money for the needy. Soon volunteers carried signs saying "Help fill the barrel!" The throngs were directed past the money barrel as a man cried, "You've spent your lives emptying kegs. Fill this one!"

Below: the scene at Rockaway Boulevard at 83rd Street (Courtesy Project Woodhaven)

The scene took on the feel of a macabre carnival, with gory recounts of the storm and cries from virtual carnies driving more people to arrive and donate. "In the keg! In the keg! In the k-e-g!"

Soon there were many empty kegs (and boxes and bags) distributed throughout the wreckage, gathering funds for the homeless and wounded. From my experience with late 19th century New Yorkers, I'm going to take a wiild guess and say that not all that money ended up in the proper hands. But for the most part, it seems, it was an overflow of generosity and charity that day. As the sun set upon the ruins of Woodhaven, the money was compiled at the schoolhouse -- its roof gone and walls torn away -- while "perhaps 5,000 people" gathered outside.

In the end, two people from Queens died during that storm -- a pregnant 17 year old struck by a beam and a five-year-old boy. (Actually, the Times reports the boy lived; the Sun says he died. Such was the way of New York newspapers in 1895.)

One rather remarkable story of survival soon emerged -- the ten-year-old daughter of the village milkman was walking her cow back to the barn when the tornado picked up both her, the cow and the barn. The barn was torn to splinters and the cow thrown into Jamaica Bay. The girl, thankfully, was deposited into an onion patch, only slightly bruised. [From the New York Tribune]

Let that be a reminder of the days when Queens had barns, cows, milkmen and milkmen's daughters!

**But don't be too petrified. According to the Tornado History Project, Queens has only been struck twice by a tornado since 1985. Staten Island has been hit with three since 1990. And the Bronx has allegedly only been hit with tornados twice in recorded history.

Top picture courtesy NYPL

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy 70th birthday, Robert Zimmerman!

They were all young once: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, in 1963

I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
Greenwich Village
-- Talkin' New York, 1962

Bob Dylan was born 70 years ago today in Duluth, Minnesota. Twenty years later, he would migrate to his adopted home of New York City and start his career in a series of Greenwich Village dive bars and coffee shops. His is certainly one of the greatest musical stories to come out of the city, and it helped redefine the well-grooved bohemian qualities of the neighborhood in time for the tumultuous decade of the 1960s.

Below, please enjoy the very first appearance of Bob Dylan on television, recorded in March 1963, for a rather strange series of syndicated programs "for young people" called "Folk Songs And More Folk Songs!", a rather square presentation of up-and-coming new folk performers. [Read the original writeup in this 1963 issue of Billboard Magazine.]

The special was recorded at New York's Westinghouse Studios. Bob briefly sweeps into frame rather amusingly at around the 1:20 mark:

And upon the show's cheesy stage, he made his television singing debut with this song:

If you're in Dylan mood today, check out a couple articles I wrote a while back on two of the former Mr. Zimmerman's most famous haunts -- Gerde's Folk City and Cafe Wha?

Monday, May 23, 2011

History in the Making: Another Rainy Monday Edition

New York 1971 (Courtesy the blog MusicFromTheFilm)

Irving Place and the house that Washington Irving never lived in -- in 1905. [Shorpy]

Did you ever wonder why a playground close Irving Place -- at Second Avenue and 19th Street -- was named after the prolific sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens? Wonder no more! [Ephemeral New York]

Forgotten New York's grand tour of the lower half of Manhattan's Second Avenue features a look at the curious alley known simply as Extra Place. [Forgotten New York]

You can find the first Confederate general killed during the Civil War buried in a surprising place. [City Room]

Watching people race walking is always amusing. Now put one on the Brooklyn Bridge in the early 1930s and you've got pure entertainment! [Brooklyn Historical Society]

In our Commissioners Plan of 1811 (aka 'The Grid') podcast, we mention the urban marvel known as Manhattanhenge. This year's first sunlight show happens next Monday and Tuesday (May 30-31) if the rain ever lets up! [Gothamist]

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Two Lions: A centennial for the New York Public Library

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the Earth as the Free Public Library -- this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” --Andrew Carnegie

The doors of the main branch of the New York Public Library (a.k.a. the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) opened 100 years ago this Monday, May 23. Designed by Carrere and Hastings, this grand icon of Beaux-Arts New York was constructed as a consolidation of three huge private collections from the estates of hospital founder James Lenox, presidential candidate Samuel Tilden and the always formidable John Jacob Astor. The By 1911, the city was also operating branch libraries, many older than the 42nd Street main building and all mostly funded by Andrew Carnegie.

Check in with the library's official NYPL AT 100 website for a list of centennial events, including all-day building tours, theater and magic shows, and even free ice cream. Ice cream, people!

I have to thank the library for allowing us to continue using their exhausting collection of old prints and photographs. You can check out the collection for yourself here.

The New York Public Library was the subject of one of our very first podcasts (#17), and it wasn't too shabby, actually. You can download it from here, find it at our Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive page on iTunes, or listen to it now by clicking here.

Above:  Life Google images, April 1944, photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Getting serious: Civil War barracks in City Hall Park

By the middle of May 1861, almost a month into the Civil War, most New Yorkers still swelled with enthusiasm for the Union cause, demonstrated at the great rally in Union Square just a few weeks earlier. Since that historic gathering, the streets were regularly filled with parades, rallies and general cries of support for President Lincoln.

Many sons and fathers rushed to join volunteer militias, most notably the brightly uniformed New York Fire Zouaves of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth. By the end of May 1861, the Zouaves would become the first Union regiment to capture a city in Confederate territory with their invasion of Alexandria, Virginia.

I think it's important to remember that, even by May 1861, this new war was already making a physical transformation upon the city. The illustration above, from Harper's Weekly, is of temporary barracks in front of City Hall, built to accommodate gathering troops from New York and beyond. (You can see City Hall towering in the background.) More troop accommodation would soon be built throughout the city.  One account describes, "great barracks built in Battery Park, consisting of an officers' marquee and a large number of tents."

By 1862, when it became clear that the conflict would not reach a swift resolution, the city removed all temporary tents and barracks from public parks but left the structures in City Hall Park intact.

Image courtesy NYPL

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Notes from the podcast (#124) Idlewild/JFK Airport

If Barbarella were an airport terminal, certainly she would be this one. A traveller's dilemma: what destination could possibly be as exotic as the airport from which you were leaving?

Scandals: We had a blast talking about JFK Airport this week, and it's always funny seeing something we just talked about popping up in a major news event the weekend of release. Had we recorded the show this week, perhaps we have mentioned disgraced French politician and International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was pulled off his flight at JFK Airport and arrested in connection with a sexual assault at a Times Square hotel.

Strangely enough, Tom (a superb French speaker) was walking around with his family in downtown Manhattan this past weekend, and they were interviewed about the scandal by several international news teams, including TV5MONDE, RFI (Radio France International) and TF1. So if you live in France or a French-speaking nation, you probably saw Tom and his family on your national news yesterday!

Correction: I put Roosevelt Field in Hempstead, Long Island, when it's actually in nearly Garden City. I wasn't really so far off; Garden City is located in the region once called the Hempstead Plains, which I discussed last week as the location of America's first racetrack.

Eero Saarinen: Our show was running long, so some of our praise of Saarinen's other work got left on the cutting room floor. But there are two other Saarinen buildings in New York, and both prominently placed -- the monolithic CBS Building on Sixth Avenue and the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. You can read more about them here.

Pretty pictures: If you'd like to look at a lot more fantastic pictures of Idlewild's glory days, visit the forum at Wired New York with lots of postings from airplane buffs. The image above is from there.

The mystery of Idlewild: One of the more frustrating aspects of doing research was the utter lack of information about Idlewild Golf Course, which was purchased by the city to construct the airport. Taking some golf enthusiasts at their word, it appears to have opened in 1930 and remained open for over a decade. But what was that named after? There's a Idylwylde golf course in Ontario, Canada, that was constructed in 1922. Any connection?

Jamaica Sea-Airport: Some of the acreage LaGuardia bought up by the city to construct Idlewild was actually already being used as a landing strip. The Jamaica Sea-Airport was a tiny airfield off the bay that opened in 1927, using three runways and a small tin hangar. At right: An antique lapel pin from this long forgotten airstrip.

For More Information: Some key books we used for this show include Airports: A Century of Architecture by Hugh Pearman, Naked Airport by Alastair Gordon/ and John F. Kennedy International Airport by Joshua Stoff, from the Images of Aviation series. And I highly recommend the petite photography book The TWA Terminal by acclaimed architectural photographer Ezra Stoller. I've put another one of his images below, but the whole book is a perfect capsule history of this strange building.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Idlewild Airport/John F Kennedy International Airport: from a golf course to a motley crew of classic architecture

PODCAST Come fly with us through a history of New York City's largest airport, once known as Idlewild (for a former golf course) and called John F. Kennedy International Airport since 1964. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia wanted a new and improved facility to relieve the pressure from that other Queens airport (you know, the one with his name on it), but a greater challenge faced developers of the Jamaica Bay project -- the coming of the jet age and the growth of commercial travel.

The solution for Idlewild was truly unique -- a series of vastly different and striking-looking terminals assigned to individual airlines. This arrangement certainly had its critics, but it has provided New York with some of the most inventive architecture found within its borders.

From stained glass to zodiac sculptures, from the out-of-this-world dramatics of the Pan Am WorldPort to the strangely lifting concrete masterpiece by Eero Saarinen, we take you on a tour of the original '60s terminals and the airport’s peculiar history.

With guest appearances by Robert Moses, Martin Scorsese, the Beatles and a pretty awesome dog named Brandy.

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: Idlewild/JFK Airport

Click on the pictures below to enlarge. And these demand to be enlarged!

The Eastern Airlines building ("Terminal 1") for the once-powerful airline that brought Robert Moses an early public defeat in the contentious battle for funding Idlewild Airport.

A large sequence of toadstool like concrete awnings adorn the entrance of Terminal 2, which serviced Northwest, Northeast and Braniff airlines.

The spaceage Pan American terminal, later called WorldPort. These postcards are courtesy DavideLevine/Flickr. He's got a great many more JFK postcards to check out as well.

Overlooking the International Arrivals Building. From this vantage, you can see the 'Versailles' like gardens and fountain that briefly ruled the airport grounds until the demand for parking became too great. (avaloncm/Flickr)

Outside the International Arrivals Building, 1960 (rjl6955/Flickr)

Inside and outside the TWA Flight Center, designed by Eero Saarinen. Pictures by Ezra Stoller

The interior of I.M. Pei's Sundrome for National Airlines, with walls that seem to melt away with the sunlight. Currently unused, the building is slated to be demolished.

American Airlines terminal, distinguished by its extraordinary face of stained glass. (Photo Dmitri Kessel/Google Life)

The simple but sleek United Airlines terminal.

The style of the jet age was partially defined by airline flight attendants. Airlines used sex appeal in their marketing and garbed their female employees in trendy (and often revealing) uniforms. These women were graduates from Overseas National Airways training school in Queens, June 1966. (More information here.)

Idlewild/JFK would see as many movie and music stars than any other location in New York. Here's Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller in 1954...

... and the Beatles arrive at JFK to screaming fanfare, 1964

Children could pretend to be air traffic controllers with this 1968 toy. Many years later, an actual air traffic controller would bring his children in to direct real planes.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Why not? Let's build this outlandish Manhattan airport!

The ultimate terminal for air and sea, if you don't mind eliminating a few neighborhoods. Goodbye Hell's Kitchen! (Click image to enlarge)

Are you a Manhattan business professional who's tired of sitting in maddening traffic to get all the way out to John F. Kennedy Airport? Does LaGuardia Airport seem dreary and dismal to you? And Newark Liberty International? In New Jersey? Fuggedaboutit!

How many times have you thought, "If only they could demolish a significant portion of Manhattan and built an airport here?" Sure enough, visionary New Yorkers are one step ahead of you.

A 1946 issue of Life Magazine, (adorned with a wistful cover of post-war Paris) outlines a proposal by one of the 20th century's most ambitious land developers, William Zeckendorf. The Hudson River Terminal project would consume Manhattan's entire westside from Ninth Avenue on to the water, 24th to 71st Street. Chelsea, Hell's Kitchen and other neighborhoods would cease to exist.

The runway sits atop an all-purpose colossal structure, a mega-dock, able to accomodate both air and river traffic. Ships would anchor at waterfront portals, while a staggering 68 planes an hour (about the number JFK can handle today) would land on the rooftop runway. The planes would then be lowered hangars on multiple floors. No taxiing around wasted empty space here!

But New Yorkers wouldn't just get a fine runway out of the deal. With connections to both subways and train, the Hudson River terminal would become the ultimate "communications hub." Naturally, the West Side Highway would burrow through the structure.

Pretty much any New Yorker going anywhere would have to pass through here. Luckily, then, this almost 144-block colossus would house "ticket offices, restaurants, business offices, waiting rooms" and other useful establishments, assuring that you'd never need to go outside.

You can read about this fascinating pipe dream in this issue of Life Magazine, and there's a couple additional illustrations as well. Thankfully, this travesty never saw the light of day.  Donald Trump's 'Television City' idea, another failed Westside development project, which would have erected a 152-floor building and an elevated parking lot in part of the area affected by Zeckendorf's proposal, seems like a modest proposal in comparison. (That will be the last time 'Donald Trump' and 'modest' will be used in a single sentence.)

Zeckendorf was no stranger to riverside annihilation projects. His ambitious plans to built a massive 'dream city' on the East River that would have dwarfed Rockefeller Center fell through in the 1940s. The United Nations headquarters sits on the land once earmarked for that purpose.

But people still dream of a Manhattan airport, even in jest. In 2009, the Manhattan Airport Foundation horrified New Yorkers with a plan to replace Central Park with a glorious new airfield. They were joking. Zeckendorf, sixty years earlier, was not.

Images from Life Magazine

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Lots of hot air: Joseph Pulitzer's failed balloon stunt

Collectors Item! If you lived in rural Illinois in 1887, you might have found one of these flyers on your roof or along the side of the road.

Joseph Pulitzer, that icon of late 19th century sensationalistic journalism, did everything imaginable to promote his popular newspaper the New York World. Not everything worked.

Pulitzer bought the paper in 1883 and immediately transformed the broadsheet into a juicy scandal sheet, the prop by which many of the tenants of yellow journalism were formed. The publisher had already purchased a share in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and one day decided to loop the two possessions together in a wild, aerial promotion.

Jules Verne had published 'Around the World In 80 Days' in 1873, and Pulitzer hoped to render the excitement of that adventure novel into a promotional tool. So in 1887, he launched a hot-air balloon from St. Louis with an eventual destination of Manhattan. Each day, reporters at each paper would update captivated audiences as to the balloon's progress using telegraphs sent along the balloon's route.

Along that route, thousands of flyers like the one above would be thrown from the balloon to shower stunned individuals below, from Illinois and along the Rust Belt to Pennsylvania.

The voyage was vigorously hyped by Pulitzer and several name reporters wanted to ride in the balloon, including Nellie Bly, who would later get her scoop for Pulitzer exposing the sorry conditions at New York's mental asylum on Blackwell's Island.

Pulitzer rejected her, thinking the assignment too dangerous for a woman; however, after her success at Blackwell's, she would get a more ambitious balloon voyage, embarking on a true around-the-world voyage for Pulitzer in 1889.

The vessel was launched with great fanfare on June 17, 1887. There was even an injury ("Prof. Moore Slightly Injured by A Falling Sand-bag.") But public interest overall was muted at best and the stunt was eventually ignored. With no audience following its foray, the balloon never even completed its journey.

Perhaps that's for the best as the balloon had a pesky time stying aloft anyway; on its first evening, it landed with a thud in Hoffman, Illinois, and had to be re-launced.

Image above courtesy NYPL Digital Gallery

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Hindenburg over New York, still a startling sight

Taken during one of its 1936 voyages, with the New York Times building in the foreground. (source: straatis/Flickr)

The anniversary of the 1937 explosion of the German passenger airship Hindenburg over Lakehurst, NJ, was last Friday, May 6, and I spent some time this weekend looking up old videos of the famous Zeppelin floating over Manhattan. Sure, we occasionally get blimps over the city -- who can forget the Conan O'Brien-themed airship last year? -- but the German-built Hindenburg was the largest and most luxurious air conveyance of its day.

And fated for a short life. It's first appearance over New York was on May 9, 1936. Less than a year later, it would explode over the New Jersey air station runway, killing 36 people, a disaster accompanied by the world's most famous freak-out by radio announcer Herbert Morrison.

The Hindenburg came to America a handful of times in 1936, including two complete roundtrip flights between Frankfurt, Germany, and Lakehurst in the month of May that year. [source]

This video shows a lot of mid-1930s New York. The Hindenburg makes an appearance at the 1:30 mark:

Yes, in case you were wondering, that is a set of swastikas on its vertical fins. Nazi insignia flying over New York during the 1930s!

Here's an entire list of flights the German airship took during its short existence.  And here's a link to an older Bowery Boys article on a New York history of blimps and zeppelins.

Friday, May 6, 2011

New York City speed racer, 1911 style

The world-famous New York City Marathon was almost sixty years in the future on May 6, 1911, when a very different marathon was run from the Bronx to City Hall.

The victor of this modified 12-mile race was a newcomer to the streets of New York. Louis Tewanima was born on a Hopi Indian reservation in 1888 but was arrested at age 18 for refusing to attend a  government-run school. He was sent to the Carlisle Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania to receive a 'proper' education.

Tewanima immediately excelled in long distance running, appearing at the Olympic Games twice, winning silver in the 10,000 meter run at the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden. Also victorious in that Olympic games was his fellow Carlisle classmate Wa-Tho-Huk, also known as Jim Thorpe, soon to become of most versatile athlete in sports history.

By that time, he'd already owned the trophy pictured above. His taller companion at left is yet another Carlisle classmate Mitchell Arquette, who placed 5th.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress Digital collection

Thursday, May 5, 2011

'Fringe' benefits light up a forgotten New York fort

I'm an unabashed junkie of the sci-fi TV series 'Fringe', and the writers (or at one of them) seems to be a fan of New York history.

One of the conceits of the series involves an alternate universe with things are just slightly different from ours. Most notably, the World Trade Center was never attacked. And there are other changes to the skyline, one of which I wrote about last year -- the construction of Antonio Gaudi's comically absurd skyscraper.

But in this bizarro world where Manhatan is spelled with a single 't', a shining beacon still stands in New York harbor. The Statue of Liberty, ever in stark brown copper, stands in for the ominous "Department of Defense." And considering that this world is constantly attacked by temporal warps -- that's why Madison Square Garden is encased in amber -- this building has an elevated, even sinister purpose.

This correlation is a clever nod to the structure on which Lady Liberty currently stands, the star-shaped Fort Wood.

Many of the great forts that dot the New York harbor turn or will be turning 200 years old over the next year or so. Several fortifications, including Fort Wood, Castle Clinton and Castle Williams on Governor's Island, were construction during the tense build-up of the War of 1812, anticipating that the city would need a tougher coastal defense. Older defenses, such as Staten Island's Fort Wadsworth, were brought up to speed.

The fort on Bedloe's Island, the original name of Liberty Island, was constructed like a starburst, a traditional 15th century European design and of the type one might build if your greatest enemy was a cannonball. This dynamic structure must have looked imposing sailing past, one of several a wary vessel would have see on its way into town.

Completed sometime in 1811, it was named after respected fort designer Colonel Eleazer Wood in 1814, the year he died in a battle against British forces near the Canadian Fort Erie.

That intense conflict that re-matched the British with its young former colony never drifted into the harbor, and so the forts were thankfully never used. It and the forts on Governor's Island prepared for battle again during the Civil War, holding ammunition and, on occasion, infirm Confederate prisoners. (At left, from a stereoscopic view of Fort Wood, equipt with manned cannons, most likely during the 1860s, pic courtesy NYPL)

With little need by the 1880s for so many fortifications, Bedloe's Island prime location in the harbor made it an ideal home for Fredric Bertholdi's elaborate piece of outdoor art, the Statue of Liberty. The fort was refitted for this new usage, and the statue of officially dedicated in 1886.

However, even after the statue arrived, the military remained on the island in new barracks, believe it or not, until 1937. (You can see them in the black and white photo above.) And in a sense, old Fort Wood has been besieged ever since, with millions of tourists, and has become central to an American icon, at least in our universe.

Below: Liberty as rendered by Currier & Ives, years before she went green

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why go to Kentucky? New York's horseracing history

Above: Man O' War, racing at Belmont, where one of the world's greatest thoroughbreds cemented his reputation. The horse was actually owned by the son of Belmont Park namesake August Belmont. (NYPL)

The Kentucky Derby is this Saturday: two minutes of race and a day of fanciful hats, mint juleps and fanning oneself with a program at Churchill Downs. As the event that kicks off horse-racing's Triple Crown competition, racing fans then gallop to Maryland for the Preakness before finishing in the Belmont Stakes. That final event takes place in New York City (well, kind of, a little bit, see below) at Belmont Park, which officially opened its gates 106 years ago today.

New York City has a healthy horse-racing tradition stretching to its very beginnings. In fact, the very first specially built race track in America was constructed in 1665 by New York's colonial governor Richard Nicholl. Called Newmarket and located in the Hempstead Plains (just outside today's border with Queens), it proved an enduring enterprise for colonists over a 100 years later. Smaller tracks were soon built in countryside closer to Manhattan island, some aristocratic British landowners would even built personal tracks on their estates.

Below: The track at Newmarket, "sixteen miles long and four wide, unmarred by stick or stone." [NYPL]

As it's often considered today, horseracing represented vice, gambling and drinking among its prime distractions. It was discouraged by the Patriots during the Revolutionary War, but the British, holed up in New York for the entire conflict, blew off a little steam at the racetrack, constructing a new course, appropriately named Ascot Heath, approximately around today's Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatlands.

New Yorkers threw the British out of the city in 1783 only to immediately indulge in their former oppressors' racetrack pleasures. Seen as a corrupting British-era vice, horseracing was banned entirely for two decades then later allowed to carry on in one place -- Queens County.

With regional exclusivity, horserace lovers looked to the popular trotting lane along Woodhaven Boulevard and built Union Course there in 1821. It became the most important race track in America and, for moral New Yorkers, a sesspool of sin. By the end of the decade, the track was being managed by former mayor Cadwallader D. Colden, once known for cracking down of alcohol consumption during his tenure.

Below: The galloping goings-on at Union Course, in the future neighborhood of Woodhaven

For those horrified by such vulgar activity, horsetrotting -- a more civilized cousin to racing -- was also popular in New York by this time, especially among the wealthy, making bucolic Harlem the prime destination for proper horsing around. Financiers and millionaires named Vanderbilt, Gould and Fisk made the upper reaches of Manhattan their own private race tracks, builting lavish stables in the neighborhoods near Harlem Lane.

By the start of a new century, horseracing defined a few region in Brooklyn. When William Engeman carved out some land east of Coney Island and called it Brighton Beach, one method they used of attracting city-goers to his luxury hotel there was building a racetrack. The Brighton Beach Race Course, located between Ocean Parkway and Coney Island Avenue, was soon joined by the nearby Sheepshead Bay Race Track, the product of a wealthy jockey club that included grandson to the Commodore, Willim Kissam Vanderbilt.

Not to be outdone, a former water conduit in Queens became the Aqueduct Racetrack in 1894 around the time the surrounding undeveloped land became the planned community of Ozone Park. It still enterains sports fans today and is one of the few venues in all of New York City to have hosted a visit by the Pope (the newly beatified Pope John Paul II, in 1995, see below).

The rich might have planted more racetracks for their amusement throughout the city had the the state not banned gambling in 1908. (Off-track betting returned to the city in the 1970s.) Some tracks tried to transition to speed competitions for those newfangled automobiles, but most closed.

Interestingly positioned by 1905 was Belmont Park, a swanky racing track near the original place where Newmarket once stood long ago. The Park is technically in Elmont, Long Island, but it abuts the border of Queens and can be easily reached by the Long Island Railroad. By this time, horseracing was neither the wiling of the rich or the indulgent of the poor, but a pasttime for all. According to the New York Tribute's coverage of opening day, 106 years ago today, on May 4, 1905:

"The attendance, morever, was not restricted to any one locality nor to any one class.... The Bowery and the Avenue mingled in the surging democracy of the betting ring. And both the Bowery and the Avenue wore its best clothes — and went home with them tattered and torn. In the more exclusive precincts of the clubhouse and the paddock there was a tendency to affect the raiment of Goodwood and Ascot, and tall hats and frock coats stood out conspicuously in the picture."

It was so signficant that even Thomas Edison's film crew was there to document the big day:

The famous third of the Triple Crown, today held at Belmont Park, became a part of the horseracing tradition in 1866 at the most famous former track in the Bronx -- Jerome Park Racetrack, constructed by Belmont friend and racing afficionado Leonard Jerome. After moving briefly to a track in Morris Park, it moved to Belmont in the park's opening year and has been saddled there ever since.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Empire State Building: Still youthful at 80 years old

Almost finished: Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine (courtesy NYPL)

The Empire State Building was officially opened in a grand ribbon cutting ceremony 80 years ago yesterday, essentially ending the quest for New York's tallest building until the World Trade Center came along in 1972.