Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Royal Tourist: Queen Elizabeth visits New York City; most notably takes a stroll through Bloomingdale's

New Yorkers greet the Queen with a tickertape parade in 1957. Courtesy jeffs4653/Flickr 

What do you buy a queen on her Diamond Jubilee, celebrating 60 years on the British throne? Well, most royal figures are quite difficult to buy for, but luckily, Queen Elizabeth has already revealed her preference in local department stores. For back in 1976, the woman who never goes shopping found herself one late afternoon perusing the merchandise at Bloomingdale's department store.

Queen Elizabeth has been to New York three times during her sixty year reign over the Commonwealth. In a couple cases, she came specifically to address the governing body at the United Nations Headquarters but managed to squeeze in a few extra activities each time, befitting her status as one of New York's wealthiest, most high profile tourists.

She first arrived in 1957, via Staten Island, riding over to Manhattan in an Army ferryboat. In the harbor, she caught sight of the newly built replica of the Mayflower (the Mayflower II), fresh from its completed voyage retracing the Pilgrims' course over the Atlantic. The Queen was practically wide-eyed during the ticker tape parade in her honor, with over a million New Yorkers lining the streets to see the young monarch, from City Hall to the Waldorf-Astoria.

Her favorite moment arrived after the UN session, when she was whisked to the top of the Empire State Building to gaze out of the hazy city. Like any great New York trip, she was out too late, arriving at Idlewild Airport at 2 in the morning for her trip home. She shared her thoughtful take on her experiences here: "The mental pictures of New York are nearer reality than those of any other city."

Below: Queen Elizabeth on her second visit to New York, 1976, courtesy Madison Guy/Flickr

In 1976, she and Prince Phillip returned the city, a bit older and less desirous of scaling skyscrapers this time around. As part of the city's bi-centennial celebrations -- and perhaps inspired by the Mayflower on her previous visit -- the Queen decided to participate in a little historical reenactment herself. Most famously, the Queen graced the steps of Trinity Church to receive back rent owed the crown -- 279 peppercorns. (I wonder where they found peppercorns in 1976 Manhattan, this being the days before Whole Foods?) A bronze plaque presently marks the spot at Trinity where she accepted the peppercorns.

After a luncheon at the Waldorf ("relaxed, animated and fairly hungry"), the royals fit in a couple unusual stops. The first was a spot of afternoon tea at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, accompanied by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Afterwards, they sped downtown for a tour of Bloomingdale's, not only stopping traffic, but reversing it, to allow the Queen to exit her vehicle from the right side.

She quietly moved from floor to floor, admiring the many displays of products of British make, particularly the pottery and furniture. She was also greeted to a private fashion show, Her Majesty led through a room of mannequins garbed in the latest stylish trends from 1976. Along the way, a few American designers made appearances to greet Queen Elizabeth, including Calvin Klein.

What accounts for such an unusual detour in the Queen's itinerary? Apparently, bedazzled by her 1957 trip, she wanted to do as New Yorkers do. Or, as a representative of Bloomingdale's remarked, "we thought -- and the Queen agreed -- that it would be a very American experience for her to go amidst all the crowds and just pretend she might be shopping." [source]

If the entire event seems a tad surreal to you, this was then reinforced by the presentation of a Sioux peace pipe to the Queen, meant to "symbolize the peace that has existed between Great Britain and the United States."

This would be her lasting memory of New York for 35 years, until 2010, when she returned again for a few hours to address the UN and to visit Ground Zero. Given the sobriety of her visit, she did little sightseeing but braved the 100-degree weather with her trademark stolid grace.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Free movies with beer -- legal in Coney Island since 1912

Coney Island's Bowery strip, the most notorious area of the amusement district. In the center of the postcard, you can make out the sign for Wacke's establishment.

What's New York in the summertime without a free outdoor movie? Or for that matter, a regular film night in any New York bar? Believe it or not, this carefree pleasure has its roots in a small but significant decision that was made one hundred years ago this week.

In May of 1912, people were still reeling from the Titanic disaster and sorting through a messy presidential election between four viable presidential candidates (Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Eugene V Debs). But most left their worries behind once they stepped off the train at Coney Island, where the amusement parks were just opening their doors that month, making way for the summer crowds with an even wilder array of rides and shows.

Most of the amusements at Steeplechase Park were totally new, as a fire in 1907 had decimated most of the park. Nearby sat the ruins of Dreamland, destroyed in a fire in 1911 and never rebuilt. Luna Park also expanded in 1912 with many new rides, including one that seemed to mock the misfortunes of its rival parks -- the Great Fire Show, which presented a Western town ravaged in flame.

But a brand new entertainment was making itself known in Coney Island -- moving pictures. For instance, when Luna Park threw open its doors on May 25, 1912, the park contained a theater which presented some of the world's first color short films in the British-invented Kinemacolor process. (Here's an example of one of the films that may have exhibited here)

The popularity of motion pictures, which were often exhibited between vaudeville acts or in continuous runs in theaters called nickelodeons, soon exposed the fallacy of one particular New York law. For operators had to have a theater license in order to present a free show, even though, technically, a film could be easily displayed in a non-theatrical environment -- namely, a saloon.

Coney Island theater proprietor Herman Wacke, no stranger to the moving image, is touted by some as the first commercial exhibitor of a motion picture at his Trocadero Hotel in 1893. Wacke's hotel, a stalwart from Coney's early years located along a strip of cabarets and beerhalls affectionately called the Bowery, was nearly destroyed in the fire that consumed Steeplechase in 1907. In 1912, Wacke fanned a few new flames.

He began showing films for free in the saloon as a way to entice people to come in and purchase food and beer. Wacke's was probably the best known of many along the Bowery to exhibit films in this fashion. But the proprietor didn't have a license to do so, and during one particular sting, Wacke was arrested -- "charged with conducting a free show in connection with his bar" -- and fined $5. Not a huge sum of money for a successful saloon owner, and Wacke went willingly, becoming a test case for a law that many certainly thought was rigid and overly meddling.

The charge was eventually overturned by a Kings Country Supreme Court judge who announced that such incidental performances were not subject to the law. The decision was announced in a headline in the May 28, 1912, edition of the New York Evening World: Free "Movies" Are O.K.  It Is No Crime If They Accompany The Beer And Hot Dogs.

The law would be challenged again a few years later by the owners of posh Manhattan cabaret Maxim's, who also presented so-called 'free' performances.

As one of America's premier leisure destinations, Coney Island was so closely associated with films of this period that it even starred in a few of them, including Mack Sennett's 'At Coney Island' in 1912. There's even an Edison film from 1903 called 'Rube and Mandy at Coney Island'.

Of course the best Coney Island-themed silent film is the Buster Keaton/ Fatty Arbuckle comedy from 1917.

 Top photo courtesy Ephemeral New York.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Times Squared: Lovingly nitpicking 'The Great Gatsby' trailer

The recent trailer to Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, aka 'Moulin Rouge in Manhattan', seems to have left everyone in a state of awe (and horror) in its vivid, hyper-electro-glossy depiction of Prohibition-era New York. And it left many feeling slight panic, even apoplexy, especially considering the entire spectacle will be rendered in 3D when it's released in December. Oh God. Will flappers kick whimsily towards the camera?

So how accurate was Lurhmann in his glamorous take on Times Square of 1922? How accurate was it supposed to be? Many have already taken note of one glaring and unforgivable error -- misspelling the name of Florenz Ziegfeld on the sign for the 'Ziegfeld Follies'. That ridiculous mistake overshadows a possibly smaller error, that the Follies were actually performed down at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street in 1922. However, the Follies from the year before were hosted at the Globe Theater on West 46th Street (today's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre), quite close to this sign. So perhaps they just kept it up.

Here's the entire trailer:

Clearly, Luhrmann is interpreting New York, not emulating it. 'Moulin Rouge', after all, was Paris through a hazy scrim. He's filtering the glitz of F. Scott Fitzgerald's work through his own dreamlike aesthetic and doesn't need to fact-check every sign and street corner. Still, the trailer does feature some interesting obscure details, and I can't help myself.  If you saw a different detail, please post about it in the comments section:

-- Queensboro Bridge The trailer opens with a spectacular look at the Queensboro Bridge, a potent symbol in the Fitzgerald novel. "Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money."

The bridge opened in 1909, and it's a defining image of the Jazz Age, not least of which because the population of Queens almost tripled during the 1920s. There were certainly trains on the Queensboro -- it was built to accommodate them -- but I'm not sure about that particular train.  Below it sits grimy old Blackwell's Island, renamed Welfare Island in 1921 and certainly looking the part.

 -- Skyscrapers Oh Lord. I don't think this depicts New York at all but is a composite view of various buildings of the age. Far to the left in the trailer I see structures that look like the Singer Building and the Woolworth Building, but they would not be seen from this angle. Besides, the Woolworth would be taller than the Singer. See below for a size comparison, in a picture from 1922, looking northeast.

There are some vaguely Flatiron Building/Met Life Tower type structures, but they look like they're on 42nd Street.  And why do I think I can see something that clearly looks like the New York Central Building (later the Helmsley Building) which wasn't finished until 1929?

-- Times Square Signs An array of illuminated products logos -- in various colorful hues foreign to Times Square in 1922 -- gives the Crossroads of the World a mystical glow. The tony Hotel Astor adorned in lights dominates the plaza to the left. Nearby is an ad for Douglas Fairbank's 'Robin Hood', released in October 1922. It played at the Lyric Theatre. Fairbank's rival Rudolph Valentino and actress Norma Talmadge created a buzz when they attended the film's premiere together here.

It's next to the advertisement for Hydrox (the sandwich cookie which debuted in 1908) and the Capitol Theater, a movie palace which opened in 1919. The tire ad is a nice touch, recalling Times Square's status as the center of automobile sales and repair during the early 20th century.

Below the Zeigfeld [sic] Follies sign is an advertisement for Sonora, a phonograph company that began producing radios in 1924. Their slogan 'Clear As A Bell' harkens back to the company's original product line -- clock chimes.

To the right of those is a sign for the Columbia Theatre, "the royal palace of burlesque" in the 1920s. The theater opened in 1910 with decor of "Roman gold and and French gray, and the hangings and carpets are of rose du Barry." It became the Embassy movie theaters in the 1970s.

Later on in the trailer, an ad can be seen for Arrow Collars, the detatchable shirt collar company that went on to spawn America's first male model type, the 'Arrow Collar Man', the sort of debonair type who populates the world of Gatsby. Of course, the demand for collared shirts pretty much killed of this industry by the end of the decade.

-- Grand Central Oyster Bar There appears to be a brief scene at this lush location with its vaulted ceilings. The Oyster Bar would have indeed been a thriving spot in 1922 and an ideal place to mix business with pleasure. A few years later, so goes the legend, David Sarnoff formed RKO Pictures over a few oysters here with Joseph Kennedy. In 1922, Tin Pan Alley lyricist Al Lubin met his music partner Harry Warren here. They went on to create the film musical 42nd Street in 1933.

-- Yellow Cab Co.? There are many brief glimpses of taxicabs, including those of the Yellow Cab fleet, which would later be purchased by the Checkered Cab company in 1929. In 1922, the Yellow Cab successfully won a ruling barring other paid-ride automobiles from being painted yellow. '1,000 Cabs Face Change of Paint.'

-- Blood And Sand A prominent movie marquee is shown near the trailer's end for Rudolph Valentino's 'Blood And Sand', a summer box office smash in 1922. This film debuted at the Rivoli, at 1620 Broadway, at 49th Street. From the New York Times film review on its debut: "Mr. Valentino has not been doing much acting of late. He's been slicking his hair and posing for the most part. But here he becomes an actor again." Let's hope the same can be said of Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Mr. Gatsby.

By the way, the 1974 version of 'The Great Gatsby', starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, premiered -- with attendees in full '20s regalia -- at the Loews State Theater at 1540 Broadway at 45th Street. "The guests, many of them in Teflon or Daisy white, whatever you want to call it, were greeted by hundreds of celebrity gawkers, reporters and photographers." [source]

Below: A clip from the Valentino film:


As I rewatch the trailer over the next few days, I may amend this article with further information. If there's something obvious that I've missed, please let me know in the comments below!

Thanks to Michael Raisch, whose Tweet to me last night inspired this article.  Screenshots courtesy of Curbed and Entertainment Weekly.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Odds and ends: Grant winners and a Bowery Boys interview

These doors just won a lot of grant money. (Photo by Wurts Brothers, NYPL)

The votes have been counted, and Brooklyn (more specifically, Park Slope) and the Bronx ran away with the Partners In Preservation initiative, sponsored by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

 The four locations which received the most votes were the Brooklyn Public Library central branch, the synagogue Congregation Beth Elohim, the New York Botanical Garden and the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum.

But for the others, there's good news! The grant proposals for the top four don't even add up to $1 million, and the initiative will now determine how to distribute the remaining $2.1 million among the other finalists. They will announce the choices in June.


I recorded an interview with Andrew Johnstone for the Podcast Squared show (essentially, it's a podcast about podcasts), discussing the philosophies behind the Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast, as well as some information on how we got started as a look behind the scenes at our process. They also give us a great review!

You can find the show (Episode #99: Golden Age of New York) on iTunes or download it directly from their website.
Or listen to some of it here:

Patell and Waterman’s History of New York

Meanwhile, over at Patell and Waterman's History of New York, they've posted my wrap-up interview regarding the Networked New York event from March which was held at New York University. The questions are specifically focused on the relationship of history writing and new digital media, but I talk about the challenges of producing a podcast and the relationship between blogs and newspapers. Check out that interview here.

With the quote: "History enriches peoples' lives abstractly, of course, but I argue that it does so practically as well. It’s about context. Your pizza tastes a whole lot better when you realize it’s been made in New York’s oldest pizza kitchen. (Whether it actually tastes good is besides the point.) This is the tourist perspective of New York. But to infuse that perspective into a daily experience here is profound. Suddenly, every street corner, every building, has a particular uniqueness. Everything talks back to you."

Monday, May 21, 2012

'Mad Men' notes: Hare Krishna blossoms in the East Village

Prabhupada in his early days in New York (Courtesy the Hare Krishna Movement blog)

WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC. If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here

 An unusual subplot takes Harry Crane, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's smug television liaison, down to Second Avenue and the temple of the Hare Krishnas where he finds new recruit Paul Kinsey, a former agency employee. In his prior existence as a pipe-smoking gadabout, Kinsey always made note of his own hipness, and, in this case, as an acolyte of a religious thought only a few months old, we can confirm that he's ahead of the curve again.

The Hare Krishna movement, derived from Hindu philosophies and reformatted for the groovy '60s, was actually fostered and popularized here in the East Village.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a Hindu teacher and proponent of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, left India in 1965 to spread his religious teaching. Eschewing material possessions, he arrived in New York in 1966 and gravitated towards the East Village, the nucleus of cultural counter-culture.

His reputation preceded him and soon gathered a small group of followers, including artist Harvey Cohen, who soon set up Prabhupada in an apartment on 72nd Street on the Upper West Side and a small studio for religious practice on the Bowery. From here the swami formed the core of what would become the Hare Krishna movement, aka the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

Given the location, most of his early followers were young people, fascinated by Hindu imagery in books and music and in particular by Prabhupada's expressions of religious thought, purifying secular consciousness expanding rhetoric into a simple spiritual regiment.

For many, he was as much a mystery as an answer. One early follower confessed later, "I didn't know what Prabhupada was about. I mean we understood about one-millionth of what Prabhupada was saying."

Key to religious practice is the ubiquitous mantra, rhythmically repeating the name of God. Said Prabhupada in a lecture in 2010. "[T]his sound, this Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, is the sound representation of the Supreme Lord."

Prabhupada and his followers would frequently be heard chanting their familiar mantra throughout the East Village, but they would be known for one particular destination. On October 19, 1966, Prabhupada led an outdoor chant underneath a elm tree in Tompkins Square Park that lasted for almost two hours, so transcendent that even the New York Times took notice: 'Swami's Flock Chants in Park to Find Ecstasy.' Today that tree (called the Hare Krishna tree) is one of the park's most popular spots and a mecca for current adherents.

Above: From the late October issue of the East Village Other, in front of the  Hare Krishna tree [source]

By this time, Prabhupada had a new home, a former curio shop at 26 Second Avenue (between First and Second Streets). They kept the old sign 'Matchless Gifts' over door, while followers decorated the interior with handmade tapestries. This became the central New York temple and remains central to local worshippers to this day. "[I]n this small room on Second Avenue, guest found themselves transported into another dimension, a spiritual dimension, in which the anxieties and pressures of New York City simply did not exist." [source]

In that first year, 1966, Prabhupada had only a few dozen followers, but at least one famous one -- Allen Ginsberg.

Below: Video of Prabhupada and followers at Tompkins Square Park in 1966

Friday, May 18, 2012

Henry Street Settlement: From the doors of old townhouses springs the compassionate heart of the Lower East Side

Children gallivant and pose for pictures outside 265 Henry Street, date unknown (Courtesy Henry Street Settlement)

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION Until May 21st, you can vote every day in the Partners In Preservation initiative, a program that will award grant money to certain New York cultural and historical sites among 40 nominees. Having trouble deciding which site to support? I'll be featuring a few select sites here on the blog, providing you with a window into their history and hopefully giving you many reasons to visit these places, long after this competition is done. Read about other candidates here.

Historic Site: Henry Street Settlement

Without perhaps intending it, social services pioneer Lillian Wald, in her desire to help thousands of poor immigrant women and children in the Lower East Side, also saved a rare and forgotten part of New York City history.

 The modern Henry Street Settlement is spread throughout several buildings in the neighborhood, providing health care, shelter, job training and a host of services to the community.  But it started out in just three adjacent Federalist-style townhouses on Henry Street, recruited into duty by Wald and her benefactor Jacob Schiff to stem the tide of disease and harm that threatened families in the world's most densely populated neighborhood in the late 19th century.

A Different Lower East Side
As New York grew northward in the 19th century, wealthy landowners carved up their land with hopes of profit and a desire to foster New York's next great elegant neighborhood. Revolutionary War colonel Henry Rutgers, who lends his first name to the street where the Settlement makes its home, sold off his property near Corlear's Hook to businessmen with financial concerns along the Manhattan waterfront.

Below: An illustration from Forgotten NY, outlining the dividing line (literally, Division Street) between surrounding properties and Rutger's own (in yellow). The buildings discussed are at Henry and Montgomery.

Many of the great shipbuilders lived in today's Lower East Side (in the 1810s, it might have been called the Upper East Side) in fabulous residences within walking distance of the shore. Even by the 1850s, when the character of the neighborhood began to change, the mayor of New York Jacob Westervelt still resided at 308 East Broadway close to his shipyards. His neighbor at 281 East Broadway was city surveyor Isaac Ludlam.

Typical of the buildings that defined the neighborhood were 263 and 265 Henry Street, Federalist townhouses built in 1827. Its neighbor 267 Henry Street is a touch more ornate, with a different shade of brick  in a Georgian Eclectic style.

Picturing these streets today lined with such buildings is requires a vivid imagination. That's because of the sudden mass of immigrants who arrived in New York by the 1850s, moving into poorer neighborhoods along the waterfront and in places like Five Points. Most of the homes along once-elegant Henry Street were torn down and replaced with tenements. Later, many of those tenements were themselves replaced with blocks of apartment complexes in the early 20th century.

These three Henry Street buildings have survived (as well as a few others, including Ludlam's old home) because they were repurposed by a woman of uncommon compassion, one of New York's most important figures in health and social services.

Settling Down
Lillian Wald first came to the city in 1891 as a student of New York Hospital's nursing program. An intelligent and ambitious woman from Rochester, Wald quickly found purpose in one of the few respectable professions in the late 19th century where women could rapidly excel. She's marveled at today as a person of extraordinary compassion. But in many ways Lillian was a modern entrepreneur, able to latch onto the progressive instincts of the day to solve the immediate social ills facing New York with great imagination and a bold lack of prejudice.

When Wald (at right) founded the Nurses Settlement in 1893, she was building upon the practices of altruistic Christian programs (like the Methodist missions into Five Points) that brought social services into the very heart of slum-filled, overcrowded neighborhoods. However Wald was Jewish, and her perspectives involving health care were profoundly nonreligious and 'universalist' for the day.

In that year she also met wealthy banker Jacob Schiff (who himself had immigrated to New York in 1865) who purchased the three Henry Street buildings for Wald to properly set up her nursing agency. From that moment, it became the Henry Street Settlement, housing a squad of nurses sent out into the neighborhood to tackle an ungainly number of health issues.

In an era where poor patients were often turned away from standard hospitals, Wald and her team of extraordinary women provided care for free, often risking their own lives to enter squalid tenements and exposing themselves to many illness that today have been completely eradicated. (One of her nurses, Margaret Sanger, would later become America's leading birth control advocate.)

The Settlement had no problem making the former Henry Street residences into working clinics. The rooms still felt like a home in its decor, a respite for many visiting patients. The nurses lived upstairs in rows of small bedrooms, most of which today have been turned into cozy offices. The most lively (and historically important) room at the Settlement was the dining room, with large mahogany tables where Wald entertained a wide variety of guests, from poor patients to the great thinkers and Progressive voices of the day.

Below: A knitting class in the famous Henry Street dining room, May 1910. The fireplace at left is still very much intact. [LOC]

Beyond Borders
The Henry Street Settlement soon expanded its mission statement to generally improve the quality of life in the Lower East Side. Concerned that neighborhood children had no place to play, Wald set aside her courtyard to become one of New York's first playgrounds in 1902.

Below: The location of the playground, just behind the Henry Street structures.

Wald frequently held meetings here for strikers rallying against the women's garment industry. In 1909, she invited both white and black guests for a dinner, organizing a group that would soon grow to become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP).

An excerpt from her 1915 book 'A House On Henry Street' illustrates the racial politics of such a seemingly simple dinner party:

"At the time of the first convention of the organization, [the NAACP] formed to further better race relations in this country, the occasion promised to be almost too serious unless some social provision were made. 

I suggested a party at the House, but even the organizing committee was fearful. 'Oh, no!' they protested. 'It won't do! As soon as white and colored people sit down and eat together there begin to be newspaper stories about social equality.' 

'But two hundred members of the conference couldn't sit down,' I submitted. 'Our house is too small. Everybody would have to stand up for supper.' 'Then it would be all right,' they said with relief, and the party was successful."

Above: One of the two original dining tables. Wald hosted hosted dozens of intellectual luminaries in this room, including Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacob Riis and Theodore Roosevelt.

Wald would become a leading figure for New York social programs, often enlisted by the city to bring improvement to the city's other public services. (In 1902, Henry Street's Lina Rogers become the very first school nurse.)  The Settlement even become an important venue for the arts with the debut of the Neighborhood Playhouse theater in 1915. The tradition lives on at the Abrons Arts Center, another part of the Settlement that continues to be a critical part of the Lower East Side cultural community. (At right: A flyer for a WPA meeting, between 1936-41, LOC)

Wald died in 1940, but her Henry Street Settlement has only expanded in the years since her passing. Today they have facilities in over a dozen buildings throughout the neighborhood, expanding their focus to include job training, mental health services, adult education, a shelter for victims of domestic violence and even a computer lab.

Those original three buildings, housing mostly administrative offices today, are still a wonderful expression of an early era of New York history. Traces of that history sits next to the practicalities of office life; in one room, an original kitchen hearth and brick oven from the original tenants sit next to a couple photocopiers. Employees sit at laptops in Lillian Wald's original bedroom with its spectacular sleeping porch overlooking the former playground.

The Henry Street Settlement hopes to use the Partners In Preservation grant money to combat the challenges of keeping their nearly two-centuries old offices in working order, to upgrade and prepare these old rooms for many more decades of providing a little more life to the Lower East Side.

Disclosure: I have partnered up with Partners in Preservation as a blog ambassador to help spread the word and raise awareness of select historical sites throughout the tri-state area. Though I am compensated for my time, I have not been instructed to express any particular point of view. All opinions expressed here are strictly my own. And since writing about New York landmarks is kinda my thing anyway, I'm thrilled to share my love of these places!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ten unusual views of Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza

When park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux regrouped after the success of Central Park to design another great park for Brooklyn -- encompassing Prospect Hill and the Revolutionary War site Battle Pass -- they preserved a greater amount of natural topography than they had in Manhattan. But that doesn't mean that Prospect Park hasn't gone through a few radical changes of its own since it opened between the years 1867 and 1873.

Their Grand Army Plaza has experienced few changes since it opened in those years, but the structures around it have certainly changed, presenting some surprising views at the mighty war monuments.

1. Women of the Wellhouse
The caption for this stereoscopic view (taken sometime in the 1870s-80s) calls this a 'well house', although it may have also been a a coal storage shed or even an outhouse! Brooklyn's main reservoir was on Prospect Hill, and the park was constructed partially to protect the water source from encroaching developers.


2. Prospect Park Dairy
As they had done in Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux infused the landscape with various romantic, fairytale-like structures, including this dairy house, providing guests with milk straight from the cow. Central Park still has a version of their dairy, but Prospect Park's was regrettably torn down in the 1930s to make way for the Prospect Park Zoo. (NYPL)

3. Brooklyn Sheep
 Sure, you many know Sheep Meadow in Central Park once had actual sheep grazing -- they were considered a rustic design ornament and a natural landscaper -- but what happened to the animals after Robert Moses kicked them out in 1934? Like so many trendy things, they moved to Brooklyn! They joined Prospect Park's already thriving sheep colony (pictured below, from 1903) before moving on to other pastures. (Courtesy LOC)

4. Floral Steps, 1904
The manicured flora that grace these steps predates the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by several years. The stairs are still there today, of course, though unadorned.

5. Drinking Fountains
With water aplenty, Prospect Park has been dotted with drinking fountains since its inception. This rather unusual fountain, from 1938, may still be around, but I doubt you'll see anybody drinking from it. (Courtesy Dept of Records)

6. Deer Paddock
The zoo also replaced the rather extraordinary Deer Paddock, where the sometimes docile creatures were allowed to wander around. This despite some of them occasionally escaping and running into the surrounding neighborhood (as one adventurous buck did in 1906).

7. Stately Reservoir Tower
High atop Brooklyn's second highest point on Mount Prospect sits the reservoir tower, only a couple decades old (1893) but looking like a medieval ruin in this image. Date of this picture is unknown, although the ground for the Brooklyn Public Library main branch building was broken in 1912, so it was clearly sometime before then. The Brooklyn Museum is in the distance. [NYPL]

8. And, yes, the Reservoir itself
The reservoir was built here in 1856 and was meant to be included within the park designs. With Flatbush Avenue ultimately cleaving the hill from the rest of the proposal, Olmsted and Vaux left it out. This picture is from between 1910-1920. [LOC]

9. From high above
This bird's eye view from 1951 illustrates the plaza's similarities to that of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

10. Library vista
And this view is from two weeks ago! During the Partners In Preservation Open House, the staff at the Brooklyn Public Library main branch led guided tours to the rooftop, offering a very particular take on the plaza. And if my camera had been better, you would see off in the distance the Statue of Liberty, situated several miles away.

Top photo courtesy NYPL

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Partners In Preservation - One week left to help a landmark!

Fit for a queen: Cleopatra's Needle, Central Park's Egyptian obelisk, is one of the nominees in the PIP initiative (Picture by the Wurts Brothers, courtesy NYPL)

You've got just seven more days to vote in the Partners In Preservation initiative, sponsored by American Express in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  That's seven more votes that could change the fate of a New York City landmark.

Partners In Preservation is providing $3 million to be given away to historic sites who have submitted grants. Each place has a different need in mind -- basic maintenance, renovation, site expansion, you name it.

You can vote once a day for a particular site you want to support. Just click the button at left to go to the Partners In Preservation voting page.  The four sites that get the most votes will have their grant requests fully funded, and the remainder of the pot will be split between other sites chosen by an advisory committee made up of civic and preservation figures here in New York.

We don't have a particular favorite in this contest.  There are big places and very small places. Spread the love! The choice is yours.

Some of these sites have been covered on the blog here already (The Astoria Pool, the Alice Austen House) and I'll have another profile this Friday. In addition, this month's podcast was on another nominee, St. Mark's Church In-The-Bowery.

Several of the nominees are represented in our back-catalog of podcasts. And most of the remainder would probably make for good future shows. Here's are the sites we've already covered. You can listen to the shows directly from the links below, or please go and download them from iTunes!

-- The Apollo Theater (Episode #15)
-- The Guggenheim Museum (Episode #67)
-- Ellis Island (The South Side Hospitals are up for the grant) (Episode #88)
-- The High Line (Episode #135)

ALSO: The Tug Pegasus & Waterfront Museum Barge is mentioned in the history of Red Hook (Episode #133 Red Hook: Brooklyn On The Waterfront) George Washington at Federal Hall is discussed in our show on New York City Hall (Episode #93: City Hall and City Hall Park)

Monday, May 14, 2012

'Mad Men' notes: Between Julia Child and Weight Watchers

WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC. If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.

This week's episode was set in the week before Thanksgiving 1966, certainly a moment of great apprehension for many American housewives like the embittered Betty Francis (the artist formerly known as Betty Draper).

The cover of Time Magazine that week (11/25/66) featured a psychedelic portrait of Julia Child, framed in a chorus of saucepans with some kind of odd,decorated fish below her. Her Boston-based program The French Chef had been on the air over three years by then, bringing rich, savory delicacies into American homes. "Her fingers fly with the speed and dexterity of a concert pianist. Strength counts, too, as she cleaves an ocean catfish with a mighty, two-fisted swipe or, muscles bulging and curls aquiver, whips up egg whites with her wire whisk." [source]

Child made classic, wholesome dishes with generous portions of high-calorie ingredients. But the 1960s also shoehorned greater artificiality into American kitchens -- a barrage of food products loaded with preservatives, in unnatural shapes and presentations. The two food products most substantially featured on this week's episode were canned whipped cream and Hostess Sno Balls, pink mounds of firmly molded, processed cake coated in a gelatinous frosting of uncertain origins. Even as Child stressed classic meals with fresh ingredients, actual food production was moving further away from easily digestible ingredients.

Made available to American grocery stores between 1965 and 1967: Bac-Os bacon bits, Shake 'N' Bake, Doritos, Easy Cheese, SpaghettiOs, Tang, Cool Whip.

If eating patterns in the 1960s set the county on a path of future health problems, they also spawned America's first significant weight loss regiment. Betty, mortified by her extra pounds and judging herself against the lanky frame of her ex-husband's new wife, turns to a community group that would grow to become the most successful weight loss program of the 20th century -- Weight Watchers, a Queens-based company formed in 1963 that brought weight control to the mainstream.

Founder Jean Nidetch described herself in a 1971 biography as a "fat Brooklyn girl who grew up to be an even fatter Queens housewife." She graduated from high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the 1940s and worked for the Internal Revenue Service before marrying in 1947. By the 1950s, she found herself in the massive garden apartment complex Deepdale Gardens in northeast Queens raising two sons and developing a compulsive eating habit.

Trying every available fad diet to no avail, she eventually visited a city-run obesity clinic in the neighborhood of Kips Bay in Manhattan, where she was advised to eat a so-called 'prudent diet': "two pieces of bread and two glasses of milk a day, fish five times a week and a weekly meal featuring liver." [source] What they didn't prescribe was camaraderie.

Nidetch took the food plans back to her apartment complex and organized a small cluster of neighborhood women to support each other in their quest to shed pounds. By 1962, she had lost dozen of pounds and had gained valuable insight into the power of group support to control eating habits. Using the 'prudent diet' as a rough guideline, she moved her regular meetings into a loft above a movie theater in Little Neck, charging $2 per meeting -- the same price as the movie tickets being sold downstairs.

As depicted in this week's episode, set in November 1966, Weight Watchers was still very much a regional program. Nidetch's first Weight Watchers cookbook was released earlier in the year, debuting the regimented eating plan and structured point system.
A sampling: "Luncheon: 4 ounces fish or lean meat or poultry, or 2/3 cup cottage cheese or pot cheese or 4 ounces farmer cheese or 2 ounces hard cheese or 2 eggs. All you want of unlimited vegetables. 1 slice bread."

As she confesses from the back cover: "Weight Watchers began when I invited to my house six overweight friends - have you ever noticed that most fat people have fat friends? - and much to the surprise of all of us we found that there were other people hiding cookies in the bathroom and eclairs in the oven."

By the end of the decade, Nidetch's new company -- incorporating its famous food-points system and a methodology of daily calorie targets -- would go worldwide. By 1972, Nidetch would invite 20,000 national devotees to a tenth anniversary party at Madison Square Garden, featuring guest appearances by Bob Hope and Pearl Bailey. (Ad below from Lubbock, TX, newspaper)

In 1978, Weight Watchers was acquired by the H.J. Heinz Company (which, in 'Mad Men' continuity, has been a most frustrating client for our favorite ad staff) who would mass produce Weight Watchers frozen foods.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Nostalgia for Astoria Pool, an early Robert Moses project with a high diving, Olympic-sized history

Mermaidens: Five sisters in bathing suits pose on steps of Astoria Pool, circa 1938. Courtesy the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION Until May 21st, you can vote every day in the Partners In Preservation initiative, a program that will award grant money to certain New York cultural and historical sites among 40 nominees. Having trouble deciding which site to support? I'll be featuring a few select sites here on the blog, providing you with a window into their history and hopefully giving you many reasons to visit these places, long after this competition is done. Read about other candidates here.

Historic Site: Astoria Pool Olympic High Dive

Astoria Pool is the largest venue for swimmers in New York, outside of the Hudson and East Rivers and, of course, the ocean. Its location in Astoria Park is certainly theatrical, parallel with the river and in sight of two spectacular bridges (the Robert F. Kennedy and the Hell Gate) that sail over to Randall's Island. For a public pool, its so big (330 feet long, with a supposed capacity of 3,000 people) that it might be more comfortable in a theme park.

Riding the Wave
The pool, the park, one of the bridges (the RFK, aka the Triborough) and the roads you probably used to get to thee places were all 1930s projects overseen by New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. But the real fuel behind the creation of Astoria Pool was the Works Progress Administration, a federal agency that infused billions of dollars into local communities during the Great Depression.

The money came just as Moses (at right, in a swimsuit, at Jones Beach) was ascending into his various governmental roles in city and state government. The result was some of his most earnest and arguably most effective projects. Perhaps his legacy might not be as hotly debated today had he stopped with his greatest hits of the decade: the Triborough, the parkways and the many miles of parkland scattered throughout the city.

And of course the swimming pools, eleven in total, built during the 1930s. They were of special note as a culmination of the modern public facility, using modern design and new technology to create places of recreation for regular New Yorkers. The idea of municipal pools wasn't new -- Philadelphia had them as early as 1890s, and New York had plenty of public baths and even floating baths  -- but standards of decency had changed by the 1920s. Women could cavort with men, as could different social classes. (And occasionally people of different races, although many of Moses' own pools were guilty of segregation.)

Astoria Pool, with its subdued Art Deco design, was the grand model for all the new pools in the other boroughs. And it was certainly the most popular, from the moment it opened in July 1936.

It became a daily destination during the summer for neighborhood children. "In 1936, I was eight years old," recalled New York Yankee superstar Whitey Ford. "You could stand by the pool on a hot summer day --along with a couple thousand neighborhood kids in the main pool and maybe another hundred in the diving pool -- look up, and see quite a sight. On the right was Hell's Gate Bridge....and on your left, was the brand new Triboro Bridge heading towards the horizon."

But Moses wasn't just concerned with public accommodation. He had different intentions for this pool, reflected in the semi-circle of bleachers and that spectacular diving platform stretching like a plant over a deeper half-moon pool. The Astoria Pool was meant to create swimming superstars.

The Diving Board and the Butterflies
Two days after its opening, on July 4, 1936, Astoria Pool hosted the U.S. Olympic trials in swimming and diving. From these events, victors went straight over to the Games, hosted that year in Berlin. 

And they weren't the only athletes tested that month in a New York WPA project. Across the water, at Randall's Island, Olympic track-and-field trials were hosted at Downing Stadium, producing the man who would become the most famous Olympian of the '36 games -- Jesse Owens, winner of four golds [For more information, check out the podcast on Randall's Island and the 1936 Olympic trials.]

Two massive Olympic torches stood astride the pool as competitors fought for a spot on the Olympic team. Events at the Astoria Pool in July 1936 produced several winners, including gold medal swimmers Jack Medica and Adolph Keifer and a slate of athletes that went on win ten of twelve medals in men's and women's platform and springboard diving. (Interestingly, the other two medalists were Germans. And both their medals were bronze, yet another result that must have angered Adolf Hitler.)

Olympics trials returned to Astoria Pool in 1952, and again in 1964, producing athletes that again nearly swept the diving events in the Tokyo games. Swimmer Don Schollander went on to win 4 golds that year, the most of any athlete in 1964 and the most medals won by an American athlete since Jesse Owens. But, as it would turn out, the biggest swimming celebrities fostered from the Astoria Pool were neighborhood boys.

Imagine being a kid in Astoria, Queens, in the early 1940s, living next to a swimming pool that had helped produce the world's greatest swimmers! A group of local swimming enthusiasts looked at Astoria Pool's extended diving platform and saw a opportunity to entertain, forming an athletic-comedy group called the Aqua-Zanies. Garbed in matching stripped ensembles, the teenagers performed wacky acrobatic stunts from off the platform -- darting, twirling and sometimes bellyflopping into the water below.

They soon became 'America' leading water comedians', performing throughout New York and even going on an international tour in the early 1950s. Several Aqua-Zanies went onto more legitimate swimming careers. And certainly these effortless performance have inspired hundreds of others to leap from the Astoria diving platform with equal attempts at gravity-defying levity.

Although the swimming pool has remained a important part of the community even to this day, that diving platform, weathering decades of elemental abuse, was shut down in the 1970s and has become something of a beloved ruin. It was recently announced that the diving pool would be transformed into a theatrical performance space, its semi-circle shape and surrounding bleachers evoking an ancient Roman stage.

With grant money from Partners In Preservation, the Parks Department hopes to rehabilitate the Olympic high dive diving platform -- not for the service of future Olympians, but as a monument to the pool's storied sports history.

Here's a sketch of the future performance space, and a video from the Parks Department:

Thanks to the Parks Department for use of the images above. (Diving platform photo courtesy NYC Dept of Records)

Disclosure: I have partnered up with Partners in Preservation as a blog ambassador to help spread the word and raise awareness of select historical sites throughout the tri-state area. Though I am compensated for my time, I have not been instructed to express any particular point of view. All opinions expressed here are strictly my own. And since writing about New York landmarks is kinda my thing anyway, I'm thrilled to share my love of these places!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Avengers Disassemble the MetLife Building

Fare thee well, you who we once called the Pan Am. We hardly knew thee. Image from Comic Book Movie

Warning: This story contains light spoilers.

Recent fantasy films and TV shows have found ways to alter New York City through the creation of alternate universes.  On Fox's Fringe, a parallel world features a New York where the World Trade Center wasn't destroyed, the Department of Defense is in a newly-bronzed Statue of Liberty, and Robert Moses never drove the Dodgers from Brooklyn. (The show also showed us what the skyline might look like with some Antonio Gaudi architecture.)

Comic book movies delight in showing super villains destroying the city -- this summer's 'The Dark Knight Rises' blows up bridges and ravages Federal Hall, while 'The Amazing Spider-man' will trash Midtown -- and sometimes they even re-write history itself.

In 'Captain America: The First Avenger', the title character, a resident of Red Hook, discovers underground government laboratories in downtown Brooklyn during World War II.  Elsewhere in this Marvel Comics timeline, Moses' World's Fair of 1939-40 was such a smashing success that Tony Stark (aka 'Iron Man') turns the site into a year-round glittering expo of technology!

The latest Marvel adventure 'The Avengers' takes a more proactive approach to revising the city landscape, as though the entire film was a surly New Yorker architecture critic.

Thanks to the Commissioners Plan of 1811, allowing for a grid striped with long uninterrupted canyons, grotesque alien beings from Asgard can fly down the avenues unabated, wrecking havoc through Manhattan -- Park Avenue in particular. Fortunately our heroes gather at Grand Central Terminal's traffic overpass, a critical location that they turn into a picturesque battleground. (Honorary Avenger Cornelius Vanderbilt, or at least his old statue from St. John's terminal, stands resolutely in the background, ready to employ his superpower of acquiring railroads.)

But one famous New York building is notably missing from these shenanigans. Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., has constructed an energy-efficient new supertower for Stark Industries right on Park Avenue itself. To build this, he has clearly gotten permission from the city to methodically dismantle the MetLife Building (the former Pan Am Building).

The filmmakers have specifically chosen not to merely erase the MetLife Building, but to specifically display it being taken apart. The building is shown greatly reduced in height, decorated with cranes disassembling it like a tinker toy.

While other buildings enjoy the glamour of being reduced to rubble by gigantic mechanical space fish, the MetLife is ignobly taken apart to be replaced by an even taller, uglier structure. In fact, the dismantling looks a bit like this picture, an image of the Pan Am Building during construction in 1969:

(You can find a few more interesting construction pics here.)

The MetLife Building is easily one of the most disrespected structures in Manhattan and has been almost since the beginnings. Ada Louise Huxtable famously wrote: "A $100 million building cannot really be called cheap. But Pan Am is a colossal collection of minimums."

According to author Meredith Clausen, "The Pan Am Building and the reaction to it signaled the end of an era. Begun when the modernist aesthetic and the architectural star system ruled architectural theory and practice, the completed building became a symbol of modernism's fall from grace."

Its broad-shouldered silhouette calls a halt to Park Avenue in a dated style that hovers between two Beaux-Arts structures (Grand Central to its south, the Helmsley Building to its north). Yet people blame the building for somehow 'ruining' Park Avenue -- when the two other structures already blocked it -- and its sly octagonal shape today makes it one of New York's more interesting Brutalist-style examples.

Modernism happened, and if you use the same criteria that we might apply to other treasured New York structures, then the MetLife Building is a unique and exemplary building. But can you ever imagine a time when the MetLife Building might ever be landmarked?

This is what I was thinking while Thor and the Hulk were tearing into alien lifeforms.

But 'The Avengers' isn't entirely disrespectful of architecture. In fact, the Chrysler Building is practically fetishized as an ideal view from the newly built penthouse of the Stark Building.

Its antenna spire, which makes it New York's fourth largest building, is even utilized by Thor in the battle to save the Earth. William Van Alen, the building's architect, would have been quite amused. This very spire was hoisted to the top of the structure from within the building itself in October 1929, a surprise accessory that allowed the Chrysler to take the title of New York's tallest building from 40 Wall Street.

For more information on the controversies surrounding the MetLife Building, check out the 'illustrated' version of our podcast (Episode #61). Download it from iTunes or directly from here.

Pic above courtesy Bleeding Cool

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Who are Barnes and Price? And other notes from the podcast

Stuyvesant Street in 1856, an aberration to the city grid plan thanks in part to the presence of St. Mark's Church and its well-established churchyard. The small building in the foreground is where the St. Mark's Bookshop stands today. You can see the steeple of St. Mark's. Hmm, what what's the other 
church in the background? (Pic courtesy East Village Transitions)

Some notes on our podcast, Episode #139: St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery

THANK YOUS: For of all, we'd like to thank Rev. Winnie Varghese and Roger Jack Walters from St. Mark's Church for telling us some wonderful stories on a sunny Sunday afternoon as volunteers worked busily to repaint that 1838 iron fence. This is one landmark is really good hands!

THE MYSTERY OF BARNES AND PRICE: There was once a second cemetery one block north of St. Mark's that contained the bodies of less wealthy individuals in the community. In September 1864, their bodies were exhumed and moved to Evergreen Cemetery at the border of Brooklyn and Queens. The New York Times report on the exhumation mentions two individuals in particular: "The remains of two dramatic notables, BARNES and PRICE, of the Old Park Theatre, have been removed from this cemetery."

The Park Theatre (pictured at right) is considered New York's first great theater, sitting on Park Row in the days before there was a City Hall, a Printer's Row or anything else recognizable or familiar about that area today. The stage entertained British officers during the Revolutionary War, and in the early 19th century presented entertainment of the highest class.

The PRICE buried in the old St. Mark's Cemetery is most likely its former manager Stephen Price, who specialized in importing British stage stars for their American debuts. One of those was Julius Brutus Booth, who debuted Shakespeare's Richard III here in 1822. Booth's children Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth would enter the acting profession in the mid-19th century.

But who's the BARNES? Most likely it was English actor John Barnes who frequented the Park and died in 1841. However, his wife Mary, billed as Mrs. John Barnes, was in many ways a bigger star, the resident 'heavy-tragedy lady' who made here debut here in 1816. The two often appeared on stage together -- husband for the comedy, wife for the drama.

Mary Barnes outlived her husband by a quarter century, remarrying and becoming a successful theater manager in her own right. She died in the same year that her first husband's body was moved to Evergreen. An assessment of her career:  "In melodrama and pantomime her action was always graceful, spirited and correct." [source]

JAMES BOGARDUS: The portico of St. Marks is one of the last remaining examples of original cast-iron construction designed by Bogardus, but there are four other buildings in New York attributed to Bogardus that still exist: 254 Canal Street, 85 Leonard Street, 75 Murray Street and 63 Nassau Street. In TriBeCa today, you'll find Bogardus Garden, a lush, green-fitted traffic triangle. Bogardus is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery.

FURTHER LISTENING: Although Augustus Stuyvesant was the last living direct descendant, there are others named Stuyvesant that trace their lineage to Rutherford Stuyvesant. To find out why this doesn't quite count, listen in to my podcast on Rutherford's pet project The Stuyvesant apartment, New York's first of its kind. (Episode #131: The First Apartment Building).

We tell a ghost story about Peter Stuyvesant and St. Mark's Church In-The-Bowery in our most popular of our ghost story podcasts. (#91 Haunted Tales of New York)

And of course, for more information on Peter Stuyvesant himself, we devoted an entire podcast to the director-general back in 2007. (Episode 14# Peter Stuyvesant)

SLIP UPS: This weeks verbal slip-ups include me saying 'St. Mark's ON-the-Bowery' twice (it's referred to in many ways, but never that).

Monday, May 7, 2012

'Mad Men' notes: The delirious world of Off-Off-Broadway

Radical thoughts, limited spaces: a performance at the Caffe Cino. Photo by Ben Martin (from an excellent website by Robert Patrick about this important off-off-Broadway site)

 WARNING The article contains a couple spoilers about last night's 'Mad Men' on AMC. If you're a fan of the show, come back once you're watched the episode. But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don't watch the show at all. You can find other articles in this series here.

 Megan might be Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's hottest new pitchwoman, but deep in her heart of delicate French extraction, she wants to be an actress. And in last night's show, she steals away to an audition of an unnamed off-off-Broadway production. She didn't get the part, but the experience leads her to make a jarring decision.

This wasn't merely a plot contrivance, but rather another use of New York geography to delineate character. Don Draper was busy at Danny's Hideaway, a Midtown East restaurant along famed 'Steak Row' shimmering with late 50s -- and, by 1966, ever fading -- glamour. Megan's off-off-Broadway audition could only be one place, and that was downtown below 14th Street, in the thriving epicenter of New York counter culture.

Aspiring performers have made New York their destination for fame since the late 19th century with the birth of the Broadway theater circuit. By the 1950s, playwrights and producers who challenged the preconceptions of standard, mainstream theater found homes for their work off Broadway both literally and metaphysically. The art of theater could now be explored for smaller crowds and with smaller budgets.

But even off-Broadway was not immune to financial realities. By the end of the decade, the popularity of off-Broadway created a parallel industry, "a smaller-scale version of Broadway itself." [source] If you were to look back at the greatest off-Broadway hits of this era (plays by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, musicals like Threepenny Opera) you'd notice that most of them have had subsequent Broadway debuts. Indeed, off-Broadway continues to be a sort of a minor league tryout for future Broadway shows.

By the 1960s, unconventional creative voices were emerging that seemed positively alien even in that world. What do you call the alternative to something that was itself the alternative? Although Village Voice critic Jerry Tallmer is credited with coining the phrase 'off-off-Broadway', the phrase might have sprung up naturally the first time audiences came in contact with the early works of this field -- modest, broken-down, difficult and experimental shows eager to discard every theatrical trapping that had built up for the past four hundred years.

The first 'true' off-off-Broadway performance, according to Tallmer's fellow Voice critic Michael Smith, was a surreal revival of Ubu Roi, performed at a Bleecker Street coffeehouse in 1960. Theatrical experimentation complimented the Village music scene nicely, as even the smallest venues could now host a production. Only in this new creative world could a cramped, smoke-filled coffeehouse like Caffe Cino, at 31 Cornelia Street, become center stage for a new theatrical revolution.

If the art was nontraditional, so too were the venues. Two churches became important homes for alternative theater in the early 1960s and they remain so to this day. Judson Memorial Church, off Washington Square, may seem austere with its elegant Italianate bell tower, turned its meeting room into an off-off-Broadway stage in 1961. And, of course, St. Marks-in-the-Bowery, took a page from its own 1920s radical bohemian past to become home to the Poetry Project and Theater Genesis (performing sometimes sexually explicit plays in the churches parish hall). Above: A poster for Theater Genesis

But just as many pivotal and provocative voices of off-off-Broadway were developing further east, in an area of the Lower East Side heavily influenced by Greenwich Village counterculture idealism and referred to by the mid-60s as the East Village. The chief among these, Ellen Stewart's mold-breaking La Mama Experimental Theatre, opened in 1961 and rejected most theatrical instincts, featuring only new plays in a stripped-down, almost barren theatrical space. Pictured above: Ellen Stewart in 1970. Picture courtesy TCG

By 1966, off-off-Broadway became a banquet of experimental ideas, spaces for gay, feminist and African-American playwrights and performers. In effect, the opposite of a certain ad agency, where creative flowering is hindered by the whims of client preference and the banality of subject.