Friday, September 28, 2012

Staten Island already had a gigantic Ferris wheel -- in 1893!

In the spirit of P.T. Barnum, Mayor Michael Bloomberg yesterday announced plans to build the world's largest Ferris wheel next to the ferry terminal on Staten Island. The amusement, called the New York Wheel, will stand 84 feet higher than a similar Ferris wheel in Singapore and also nods towards the London Eye, a ride built in 1999 that quickly became a centerpiece of British tourism.

Obviously geared towards boosting tourism to Staten Island, the plan offers something for the residents of the borough in the form of a "retail outlet complex." With the ballpark home of the Staten Island Yankees and the recently redesigned ferry terminal, the new projects will radically alter the face of the St. George neighborhood.

(At right: A rendering of the new wheel, courtesy ABC.)

But the idea of a Ferris wheel drawing tourists to Staten Island isn't a new one. The very first Ferris wheel in the borough was constructed back in 1893, on the opposite shore in the old Midland Beach resort area.

Midland Beach and adjacent South Beach were Staten Island's answer to Coney Island and Rockaway Beach, back in the era before any of those amusement centers were officially a part of New York. The Staten Island resort area got its wheel the same year that George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. installed his most notable wheel -- and thus giving the amusement its name -- at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Staten Island's ride -- called an 'observation roundabout' -- was built by Ferris' rival William Somers after he was rejected a spot at the Chicago fair. It was probably similar to Somers over roundabouts built on Asbury Park and Rockaway Beach, of wooden construction, about 50 feet in diameter with approximately 16 passenger chambers. [Check out Norman Anderson's history of Ferris wheels for more information.)

Thanks to Ferris and the fame of the Chicago World's Fair, nobody was calling them roundabouts by the start of the 20th century. The Ferris wheel hovered over Midland's rows of bathing pavilions and beer gardens along the boardwalk and was joined by the Happyland amusement park in 1906.

The New York Tribune sang praises of the amusement in 1904: "If they [the young of all ages] desire pleasure with an element of excitement, [they] may venture a ride in the great Ferris wheel, from the summit of whose broad circle they may enjoy an excelled view out over the broad bay to the open sea."

The St. George Ferris Wheel is slated for completion in 2015. As for the old Midland Beach wheel, it appears to have been destroyed -- along with a great many other amusements -- in a devastating fire in 1924.

And by the way, Ferris' original wheel, the one that was at the Chicago World's Fair? There were actually plans to bring the wheel to Manhattan in 1894 and set it up -- on Broadway! Sadly, these plans fell through.

Pictures courtesy NYPL

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Day of Atonement indeed: The Yom Kippur riot of 1898

Hat stores on Division Street, below the elevated train and a bit west of the action in the article below. Picture is from around 1907 (NYPL

When I hear of riots in the Lower East Side during the late 19th century, my mind goes disgruntled newsies or agitated garment workers, rising up for fair wage and employment. Or maybe a vicious street gang like the Whyos primed to wreck havoc. I don't immediately think of the orthodox Jewish community.

But it was indeed dissatisfied members of this group that staged a bit of chaos on the corner of Canal and Division streets during Yom Kippur in 1898. According to the New York Sun, the violence centered around a Russian Jewish coffee house owned by the Herrick brothers at 141 Division Street, a popular gathering place for 'political spell-binders and labor agitators' with likely a more casual atmosphere than the many Jewish restaurants surrounding it and certainly popular with young men.

Here's an advertisement for Herrick's in a chess journal from 1904:

Even as sundown approached and traditional Jewish places closed their doors for the holiday, Herrick's cafe stayed open, with tables occupied with young men in apparent disregard for the custom of fasting. The article makes a point to label most offenders as 'American-born' and '16 to 18 years old' -- as in rebellious, with an implied lack of respect towards tradition.

The Herricks had actually planned this display of defiance, going so far as to advertise in an 'anarchistic' newspaper that they would remain open for the holiday. They were prepared for some opposition, certainly, but certainly not for what came next.

According to the Sun, at sight of the violation, angry orthodox mobbed the place, throwing stones and smashing the cafe windows.  The New York Times reports that 'several thousand Hebrews' soon arrived to protest in the surrounding streets. The police from the local Madison Street station were called to quell the violence and asked the proprietors to close their cafe for the evening.

But violence further escalated the following day, when one of the brothers reopened the cafe the next morning 'for customers, Jewish and Gentile, all day, at the usual prices'.

Fearing a repeat of the evening's disruptions, police cordoned off the street to no avail. When diners left the cafe this time, they were met by "several thousands* [who] gathered and threatened dire vengeance on those who would eat on the holy day."

Many offenders were chased down the street for fear of their lives. Eventually, the angry protesters even managed to storm the restaurant again where they "overturned tables, smashed dishes and threw crockery at the proprietors." One diner was doused in hot tea. Another diner, with his three friends, happened to be military and 'fired off a revolver to attract police', scattered the crowd in fear. Police did arrive, with clubs drawn.

Soon the violence spilled into the streets and devolved, like so many riots of this type, into fisticuffs among angry young men. By the end of the day, several rioters were taken into custody, and the neighborhood quickly returned to its peaceful celebration of the holiday.

As for Herrick's, well, the advertisement above is from 1904, so they obviously continued stirring up 'political spell-binders' and controversy in the neighborhood for many more years.

*Early news reports are never very good at estimating crowd numbers, so 'several thousands' could also mean 'several hundreds'. Given how crowded this neighborhood was in the 1890s, most could have simply been trying to figure out what was going on!

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Croton Aqueduct: How New York got its drinking water

Above: The Croton Reservoir in 1850, in what would soon become Central Park. (NYPL)

PODCAST One of the great challenges faced by a growing, 19th-century New York City was the need for a viable, clean water supply.

We take water for granted today. But before the 1830s, citizens relied on cisterns to collect rainwater, a series of city wells drilled down to bubbling, underground springs, and, of course, the infamously polluted Collect Pond. But these sources were spreading disease and clearly inadequate for a city whose international profile was raising thanks to the Erie Canal.

The solution lay miles north of the city in the Croton River. New York engineers embarked on one of the most ambitious projects in the city's history -- to tame the Croton, funnelling millions of gallons of waters through an aqueduct down to Manhattan, where it would be collected and stored in grand, Egyptian-style reservoirs to serve the city's needs.

This is the story of both the old and new Croton Aqueducts, and of the many landmarks that are still with us -- from New York's oldest surviving bridge to a former Bronx racetrack that was turned into a gigantic reservoir.

FEATURING: An entire town moved on logs, a famous writer's strange musings on Irish laborers, the birth of a banking titan, and guest appearances by Isaac Newton, DeWitt Clinton, and Gouverneur Morris (or, at least, men who share those names).

To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: Water for New York: The Croton Aqueduct


A fireman's map of New York in 1834, detailing the location of the city water supply, in cisterns and hydrants fueled by the 13th Street Reservoir. (NYPL)

Wall Street in 1847. The Manhattan Company is at 40 Wall Street. Founded by Aaron Burr ostensibly as a public works to distribute water, the Company soon shed its water responsibilities to become a full-fledged financial institution.

The Croton Dam and the start of the aqueduct system. After a partial collapse in 1841, the dam was quickly rebuilt for the opening of the entire system the following year. Today, the location of this dam is submerged under the current Croton. (NYPL)

Examples of the various tunnels created to accommodate the various topographical challenges encountered during construction. Miles of these water tunnels were constructed by a team mostly comprised of Irish laborers. (NYPL)

The glorious High Bridge, the oldest surviving bridge in New York -- although much of it has been replaced and quite altered. (NYPL)

High society flocked to Jerome Park Racetrack on the weekends in the 19th century. But the park was turned into a reservoir at the beginning of the 1900s. (NYPL)

Also: please see my post from yesterday The Art of the Reservoir for pictures of some of the receiving and distributing reservoirs used in the Croton system and others through the New York region.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The art of the reservoir, New York's forgotten architecture

The Fortress of Fifth Avenue: the Murray Hill Reservoir

We share a lot of the same needs as New Yorkers of the past, but we've just gotten better at hiding the unpleasant ones.  There are a great many mental institutions and specialized medical facilities in the city; they just aren't in creepy, old Gothic buildings anymore. Prisons are out on islands or in nondescript beige towers flaunting only the barest hint of iron bars. We don't dress them up in Egyptian morbidity like the famous Tombs prison of Five Points.

Our trains and our electricity reside underground, and so does our water, mostly. There are only a few places that seem to suggest that New York City's water supply doesn't just magically appear. Water towers dot the skyline, recalling romantic comic book landscapes, while water treatment plants, spread mostly through the outer boroughs, obviously do not. Then there are the reservoirs, the grandest of these, the Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx, is a landmarked structure of enormous, albeit hidden, beauty. It's currently drained and sitting like the Earth's largest off-season swimming pool.

But New Yorkers used to live with their water, contained in reservoirs meant to evoke might, sophistication and security. After all, New York only got fresh water from the Croton Aqueduct in 1842; before that, it was mostly obtained from wells, cisterns, and that nasty old Collect Pond. People were proud of their new water system, so why not show it off?

Here's a gallery of New York's old 19th century reservoirs. In tomorrow's podcast, we'll elaborate on the marvelous story on how the city got its water:

The Manhattan Company reservoir on Chambers Street was opened in 1801 and was quickly deemed inadequate. Looks lovely though. If it were still around -- it was demolished in the early 1900's -- it would probably be a nightclub today.

13th Street ReservoirOpened in 1830 as a water-pooling resource for fire fighting, it pumped water to hydrants on Broadway, the Bowery and other streets, but was little help in stopping the blazes of the Great Fire of 1835.

The Yorkville reservoir, how it looked on its opening in 1842. It was located between 79th and 86th Streets and between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Many years later, was surrounded by Central Park and was later torn down to become the park's Great Lawn. What does remain, however, is....

...the Central Park receiving reservoir, built in the 1850s and, unlike the Yorkville, incorporated into the park's designs. Today it's named for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who lived nearby and frequently jogged around it.

The spectacular High Bridge, part of the Croton system, with its adjoining smaller reservoir and water tower, serving the needs of residents of Manhattan's higher elevations.

The grand Murray Hill Reservoir, probably the most popular of the reservoirs with 19th century tourists. Situated on land that had held the fabulous Crystal Palace (destroyed by fire in 1858), the reservoir was demolished in the 1890s to make room for Bryant Park and the New York Public Library.

Brooklyn was maintained in the 19th century in two reservoirs, one in Ridgewood and the other high atop Mount Prospect, although the ultimate source of the water came from a variety of places.

An issue of Scientific American in 1906, celebrating 'the concreting' of the Bronx's Jerome Park Reservoir which opened that year and contained portions of both the old and new Croton Aqueduct systems.

The 1917 Silver Lake reservoir in Staten Island was constructed, like the Central Park reservoir, to be a functional feature of a park setting.

Pictures courtesy the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum and the Library of Congress. Thanks as always to these institutions. The Scientific American can be found here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What do you get Tiffany & Co. on their 175th anniversary? Why, a podcast, of course. (Blue box optional.)

Charles Tiffany, the son of a Connecticut mill owner, borrowed one thousand dollars from his father one day and set out with his old classmate John Young to open 'a fancy goods and stationary store' at 259 Broadway (around the northern section of City Hall).  On September 18, 1837, their little store Tiffany & Young opened their doors, displaying 'fancy articles and curiosities' and making a grand total of $4.98 on their first day.

Today Tiffany & Co. is celebrated as one of New York's oldest and most enduring businesses, moving up Manhattan with the rest of high society during the 19th century and cementing their reputation at their tony Union Square location at 15th Street (pictured above). It wasn't until 1940 that they moved to their present location on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.

Celebrate the luxury jeweler and the Truman Capote story it inspired by digging into the Bowery Boys Archive. Episode 38 was a short history on both store and the film.

You can download it here #38: Breakfast at Tiffany & Co. Or go to iTunes and look for the Bowery Boys Archives. The original blog page with photographs can be found here.

 Courtesy NYPL

Friday, September 14, 2012

Ten strange supernatural events that have supposedly occurred in New York, according to the Weekly World News

When I was a teenager, one of many life missions was to one day write for the Weekly World News, the black-and-white supermarket tabloid which specialized in uncovering mutant, fantastical, and mostly unbelievable events being ignored by the mainstream media.

It began in 1979 with far less embellished intentions, focusing on celebrity gossip and sensational true crime stories.  But it quickly found its footing as a proto-Onion style poke at the National Enquirer, spending the 1980s with ever-heightening, baldly absurd headlines which often slathered a kernel of truth in layers of fiction.

And then in 1992 came an extraordinary discovery in a West Virginia cave, a primordial mutant child the News called 'Bat Boy', an instant success that eventually spawned a popular off-Broadway musical.  From then on, the Weekly World News has been an ever-escalating fanzine to the absurd, an outlandish rag of zany stories and doctored photography, often making unsubtle dings at current cultural events.

New York has been a repeated backdrop for many Weekly World News exposes, its landmarks battered and abused by a host of supernatural entities.  For his part, Bat Boy has been to New York on several occasions, once riding upon the top of a subway car to Coney Island "to get some of his beloved hot dogs." In 2010, Bat Boy endorsed the enigmatic Jimmy McMillan (of The Rent Is Too Damn High party) for mayor.

The entire Weekly World News back-catalog is now available online on Google Books, and I recently spent a few too many hours perusing old titles looking for the best stories about New York City.  Little did I know of the number of spectacularly weird -- and true! -- events that have occurred here without my knowledge.  Click on the headers below to go the particular issue:

In 1997, the paper uncovered a nest of giant turtles in the New York sewer system capable of snapping off a man's hand in a single bite.  One specimen was captured at a Bronx treatment plant and sent to the Bronx Zoo where it was declared patently 'prehistoric'.

But where did these monsters come from?  "The Hudson River gets too much water and gates are opened to allow the water to flow into the East River."

A gathering of phantoms terrorized socialites along Fifth Avenue in 2006 as they marched down the street in a parade, walking through traffic and alarming law enforcement.  A police barricade at 57th Street proved useless as the spectral community simply passed right through it.

"It was surreal. I saw a Civil War soldier, an ancient Roman, a cavewoman and other strange apparitions. There were even a few celebrities, like Laurel and Hardy and Mark Twain."

The Blizzard of 1888 immobilized the city, responsible for the deaths of hundreds and shutting down almost every element of New York infrastructure. It was such a devastating storm that there could only be one cause -- beings from outer space.

As proven in the photograph above, obtained by the Weekly World News in 2007 from a source at the Brooklyn Eagle, flying saucers menacingly hung in the air over South Brooklyn during the storm. "We were being tested," claimed a representative from the government's Unexplained Phenomena Bureau.  Apparently, we passed.

(pictured at top)
An unprovoked Easter attack in Central Park by an alleged "man-sized, floppy-eared creature" brought on a lawsuit by the victim's mother. Perhaps the suit was settled out of court, for a paranormal expert is quoted claiming that "I seriously doubt that [the Bunny] would attack a helpless, unarmed child."

The Biblical rapture -- where Christian faithful instantly vanish from the earth, to be taken to heaven -- has already occurred, according to one 1999 article. The event took thousands of Christians during World War II. It offers as proof the extraordinary photograph of Grand Central Terminal to the right.

"According to a police officer who was cited as an eyewitness in one news account, rays of bright blue light came through the windows of the train station and singled out certain individuals."

Strangely, the photographer of this iconic picture, John Collier, remained silent on this fact. Another conspiracy?

It is particularly irresponsible of the city to cover up the deadly event which occurred on Coney Island in July 2007, when an 'undulating amoeba' with the head of a duck and webbed feet rose from the ocean and attacked people along the boardwalk.

The beast apparently destroyed the Cyclone -- it was swiftly repaired -- and viciously went after the Parachute Jump before its 'viscous body' evaporated before the eyes of stunned police officers. Certainly you remember Mayor Bloomberg's lame story about this event being 'an aberrant form of ball lightning'? Well, the News blows that lie right out of the water.

Below: A composite of the fowl creature.

Anybody who lives and works in New York knows that there are moments where hours seem to pass in the span of mere minutes. Luckily, the Weekly World News over the years has found evidence of the city's tenuous spot at the precipice of time and space.

An airplane which had disappeared over the Swiss Alps in 1972 suddenly reappeared over Manhattan in 1996, souls which had traveled through the dimensions, unaware of their otherworldly form.

Another portal appeared in the Tribeca neighborhood in 2007, when construction workers on Chambers Street fell victim to a tear in the space-time continuum, going from "real-time motion to moving at slow speed," due to the dust of a white dwarf star that had somehow managed to get in their cement mix. The workers trapped in the space-time anamoly asked for overtime, "but they ain't gettin' it," claimed their foreman.

A popular urban legend is given forceful historical credibility by the tabloid, exploring the long history of alligator sightings in the New York sewers.  In the 1930s, sewer workers were authorized to "shoot, poison or drown every one they could track down." There were so many sightings in the 1950s, claims the paper, that sanitation workers purportedly demanded "protection from attacks."

In 2002, a man viciously attacked his girlfriend in her apartment by biting her in the face. Or, as the News reported it, "gorged himself on chunks of her flesh!"

Clearly a telltale sign of lycanthropy, the News helpfully adds "The case recalls the mythical creature explored in folklore and in such Hollywood films as I Was A Teenage Werewolf."

The aquatic population of the East River is not immune from organized crime, as one Lower East Side resident discovered in 2007 when he awoke one morning to discover seven dead trout in his bed.

Officials tracked the crime to a deadly internecine war among the 'trout, carp and bass' of the river. "We think they have fishermen on the payroll," said one detective.

But it's not been all horror and doom for New York City in the pages of the Weekly World News. According to a 2002, article, the legendary Fountain of Youth was discovered underneath the streets of the city. One catch -- it's in a subway toilet.

Images and headlines above courtesy the Weekly World News, except for the Grand Central shot, courtesy New York Public Library

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hot off the press: the bicentennial of the Bronx Gutenberg

Hoe Avenue in the Bronx has nothing to do with farming, although it once indeed ran through a grand 19th century farm estate.

The avenue's namesake, Richard March Hoe, born 200 years ago today, brought about a revolution in the world of printing. Without his innovations, the phrase 'hot off the press' might never have come about.

His father Robert Hoe, born in England in 1784, the year after America won its independence, moved to the new country and began a printing press business in lower Manhattan (10 Cedar Street) with his two brothers-in-law. Hoe tinkered with improving the hand-operated press machine for the ever-demanding industry of New York publishing. But it would be his young son Richard (born Sept. 12, 1812), taking over the reigns of the company in the 1830s, who would change the world of printing forever.

At right: 'Colonel' Hoe with his spectacular invention

The answer, of course, was steam power. It had forever changed the worlds of industry and transportation during this period. In 1843, R. Hoe & Company introduced a rotary printing press (nicknamed the 'lightning press'), using a revolving cylinder drum that rapidly turned out thousands of printed pages using steam power.

His influence on the publishing world by the 1840s cannot be overstated. New York's penny press, led by newspapers like the Sun, the Tribune and the Herald, utilized the technology to expand their circulation. Soon newspapers across the country were being made using the Hoe printing press, inspiring the growth of daily publications, turning the newspaper into an everyday item and creating a greater demand for the quick delivery of information.

Above: R. Hoe & Company at 504-520 Grand Street.  

Like many great business moguls of the age -- certainly men like Thomas Edison were paying attention -- Hoe both innovated himself and bought inventions from others, generating a mini-publishing revolution from his headquarters at 504 Grand Street in Manhattan (pictured above).  In 1871, his factory eventually produced America's first web press, generating two-sided printed pages from a single roll of paper. [source]

If that wasn't enough, a decade later, Hoe acquired the technology to fold the newspapers as they came off the press.

Interestingly, the company also distinguished themselves in the manufacture of saw blades, a side business not completely unrelated, as they were used to cut metal type.

While Hoe conducted business from the Lower East Side and from offices in London, the printing-press mogul resided in a lavish 53-acre estate named Brightside near the Bronx River, on land once owned by the family of Gouverneur Morris, with plenty of room for an orchard and land for his prize-winning Jersey cattle. His brother Robert bought the neighboring land and opened his own estate called Sunnyslope.

Most signs of these estates is long gone, of course, with the exception of Hoe Avenue.  For modern pop culture junkies, the street is perhaps best known for the Hoe Avenue peace meeting, an assemblage of New York street gangs calling for a truce that inspired the plot of the 1981 film 'The Warriors' (in particular, the 'Can you dig it?' scene).

Nearby you'll find another street named for printers: Aldus Street, a modification of the name Aldo Manuzio, a 15th century Italian printer  At the corner of Aldus and Hoe is a small playground called Printer's Park, with playground equipment made to look like a rotary printing press.  And nearby is a small garden called -- no beer jokes please -- the Hoe Garden.

Richard Hoe died in Florence, Italy, on June 7, 1886.

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A strange, new skyline: World Trade Center 1971

Two beautiful and unique 1971 photographs by Life Magazine's Henry Groskinsky showing the nearly completed World Trade Center.  These are fascinating not only for the appearance of the towers as they prepare to lord over the '70s skyline, but also to note what's notably not there yet -- the entire Battery Park City area. At this point in time, the land is still being formed using the excavated materials from the World Trade Center site and dredged sand from other places in the harbor.

Manhattan filmmaker Gary Kaskel made this jazzy student film about the Towers in 1972, highlighting a day of construction and capturing the wonder and strangeness of the towers. It's followed by a post-9/11 report from CBS which used footage from the movie:


Friday, September 7, 2012

Rainey's African Hunt: A bloody 1912 movie blockbuster

Hunter and gadabout Paul Rainey: An accidental matinee idol

Catching a movie this weekend? Many New Yorkers had the same plan one hundred years ago, but the experience was vastly different.  Motion pictures in 1912 were shorter, without sound and in black-and-white, of course, but they were sometimes presented as part of a set of vaudeville performances, with live musical accompaniment and in repertory with several short films.

In the days before movie palaces, movies were shown in legitimate theaters which often gave them a must-see feel. This was the case with a strange non-fiction film that played in New York for well over a year -- Rainey's African Hunt.

In September 1912, the film played Joe Weber's Music Hall at Broadway and 29th Street:

The film made its debut in April 1912 up the street at the Lyceum (45th/Broadway) and played there through the summer, heralded as a serious entertainment, for 'wealthy people at top prices' to distinguish it from the fiction films favored by everybody else.

But is seems that 'African Hunt' resonated with all sorts of audiences. The film moved to Weber's in August, then to the Bijou (30th/Broadway) in October, where it stayed put until April 1913!

So what made this film so popular? Americans were still safari crazy in the early 1910s thanks to Theodore Roosevelt's famous African trip in 1909, in which he brought back the carcasses of dozens of exotic animals and donated them to natural history museums around the country, including New York's own American Museum of Natural History.

The wealthy playboy Paul Rainey was also a renown game hunter and filmed his exploits in Africa following Roosevelt's trip there. The film depicts his interaction with African tribes and the trials of hunting exotic animals. Although Rainey claims to have been more interested in photographing and trapping live creatures, he ended up killing several dozen animals, including "twenty-seven lions in thirty-one days." One notable scene features Rainey's specially trained fox hounds stalking and killing a leopard.

 Claimed one advertisement: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. That is the secret to the extraordinary success of this picture."

The film came with a sterling pedigree and glowing reviews, include praise from the American Museum's Henry Fairfield Osborn, who proclaimed it the 'greatest contribution to natural science of the decade.' [source]

Distributed by Carl Laemmle's Universal studios, 'Rainey's African Hunt' grossed over a half-million dollars, an extraordinary sum for an early motion picture. It would stand as one of the most successful non-fiction films of the decade.

Like every box office success, a sequel debuted in 1914 at the Casino Theatre (29th/Broadway). Portions of its first week gross were donated to a newsies home and summer camp in Staten Island. Despite emphatic reviews -- "better and clearer" than its predecessor, according to the New York Times --  it appears to be mostly recycled material and was not a hit.

Below: A grim photo from Rainey's safari. The hunter killed so many animals that is exploits eventually led to stricter regulations on foreign hunters.

According to the site Silent Era, a print exists of the film, although I don't know if its presently available for view.

For more information on New York's unique relationship with African safari hunters, check out our podcast on the American Museum of Natural History. For a peek at the early days of cinema in New York, listen to our show on NYC and the Birth of the Movies.

For more information on Paul Rainey, check out this interesting blog page on his Tennessee lodge and his tragic death.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tammany Hall hosts the city's first Democratic Convention: Susan B. Anthony, the KKK, and a reluctant nominee

Many of you may remember New York's sole Republican National Convention, held in 2004 at Madison Square Garden, celebrating the re-election bid of George W. Bush. Some may recall any one of New York's three recent Democratic National Conventions -- two (1976, 1980) for Jimmy Carter, and a rather memorable one in 1992 that placed Bill Clinton on the ticket.

Oh, but that's modern politics! Conventions of the past -- stodgy, contentious, male -- are more fascinating artifacts, gentlemanly in tone, chaotic and raw in execution, and dominated by a mix of issues both eternal (war, debt, taxes) and outdated (slavery, territorial expansion).

Of New York's five Democratic nominating conventions, the most infamous is certainly the 1924 gathering at Madison Square Garden -- the old Garden, Stanford White's palace on 26th Street -- distinguished by rancor, the significant influence of an energized Ku Klux Klan and an exhaustive trek through 103 ballots only to settle upon a weak compromise candidate, West Virginian politician John W. Davis, who was crushed in the general election by Republican Calvin Coolidge. Within two years, the Garden would be closed and promptly demolished, as though in embarrassment.

But I find the first national convention, held in 1868, to be the most intriguing and telling of New York life in the mid-19th century, a convention so unusual that the eventual presidential nominee actually recoiled from accepting the nomination.

Four years prior, in 1864, a splintered Democratic Party had tried to replace Abraham Lincoln in the White House with his former Union general George B. McClellan. In New York, former mayor and now-Congressman Fernando Wood led a drive for new national leadership -- even though he loathed McClellan -- and called for an end to the Civil War with their 'Southern brethren'. But opposition quickly withered after a series of Union victories, and Lincoln was re-elected.

Flash forward to 1868. Lincoln was dead, the Civil War was over and slavery was abolished. The current president Andrew Johnson aligned with Democrats over Southern inclusion, eventually leading to his impeachment and a serious damaging of the national Democratic brand.

To bring glory back to the White House, the Republicans hoisted forth as their nominee the hero of the war, Ulysses S. Grant. Perhaps the most famous man in America, Grant would eventually prove to be a mediocre president. But his reputation and charm were so great in 1868 that the Democrats knew they stood little chance to defeating him.

New York's Democratic contingent -- in particular, the political machine Tammany Hall and its leader William 'Boss' Tweed -- controlled the national committee during this period and steered the convention to New York for the very first time in July 1868.

Their headquarters at 141 14th Street (at left) was sparkling new, 'fresh from the builder's hands,' a lush multi-use venue with auditoriums, clubrooms and even a basement cafe, situated next door to New York's poshest destination, the Academy of Music.

The convention was especially notable as it featured several Democrats from Southern states for the first time since the war.

Delegates crowded into the main hall on July 4, and a roar of support greeted Democratic power player (and horse breeder) August Belmont, who gaveled in the proceedings. "I welcome you to this good city of New York," Belmont declared, "the bulwark of Democracy."  Nearby smiled former New York governor Horatio Seymour (pictured below), president of the convention. Five days later, there were be far less formality and Seymour, in particular, would not be smiling.

On July 5th, the Democrats unfurled their official platform, embracing the return of the Southern states and harshly criticizing the Republican-dominated Congress:  "Instead of restoring the Union, it has, so far as in its power, dissolved it, and subjected ten States, in time of profound peace, to military despotism and negro supremacy."  Certainly pleased with this particular inclusion was Tennessee delegate Nathan Bedford Forrest, grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

But the Democrats made room for the consideration of progressive causes too, such as a call for women's suffrage.  Seymour read aloud a plank from the Women's Suffrage Association written by Susan B. Anthony and co-signed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Anthony appealed to their quest for dominance. "It was the Democratic party that fought most valiantly for the removal of the 'property qualification' from all white men, and thereby placed the poorest ditch-digger on a political level with the proudest millionaire. And now you have an opportunity to confer a similar boon on the women of the country ... a new talisman that will ensure and perpetuate your political power for decades to come."

The request was greeted warmly by the room before being respectfully dismissed altogether.

Things grew less harmonious when the balloting for president began.  Several candidates were submitted, even the disgraced Andrew Johnson. For several arduous ballots, the leader was George H. Pendleton, who had been the vice presidential hopeful under General McClellan. But it immediately became clear that the factions within the party were in no mood to settle quickly.

Pendleton's lead had weakened by the 13th or 14th ballot, leaving two key candidates -- Thomas Hendricks, an Indiana politician, and Winfred Scott Hancock, a Union general that seemed an attractive challenger to Grant.  But neither could approach the two-thirds needed to snatch the nomination.

A stalemate called for a third candidate, somebody that all could agree with, while at the same time, an individual that was absolutely nobody's top choice.  It was at the podium that delegates found their man -- Horatio Seymour.

He was horrified. Seymour wanted to retire and had previously rejected calls to run for national office. Privately he must have considered the pitiful chances of running a lengthy campaign against Grant. But delegates greatly respected the former governor, a bastion of cool Democratic leadership who had been an opponent to the federal draft during the war.  He had also been partly responsible for the Draft Riots, emptying the city of federal militia days before the draft was to begin that July.

Still, their were few ready options for the Democrats. When a delegate from Ohio suddenly declared "against his inclination, but no longer against his honor" to put forth Seymour as a suitable compromise, the room followed suit. On the 22nd ballot, Seymour was enthusiastically declared the Democratic nominee for president.

The only one not enthusiastic about it was Seymour. "I said to them that I could not be a candidate [and] I meant it." [source]  He left the convention in a huff, only to begrudgingly accept the nomination back at Tammany Hall the following day.

Seymour threw himself into the campaign with vice presidential choice Francis Blair Jr. (whom Seymour barely knew and hardly liked). As evidenced by the campaign poster above, they weren't afraid to use the Southern racial divide to appeal to voters. But no matter; they lost soundly in the electoral vote to Grant and vice president Schuyler Colfax.

Perhaps the real objective of the convention wasn't to sway a national crowd, but to energize New Yorkers. Democrats swept into local and state offices, including Boss Tweed's own choice for governor John T. Hoffman.

Below: Democrats rally in Union Square in support of Seymour and other local candidates, October 5, 1868

Pictures courtesy of New York Public Library

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

News from the podcast: Super Deluxe Library Edition

A Welcome Debut: Our podcast this week was on the history of New York University, an institution which spent decades in the Bronx neighborhood today called University Heights. When they returned downtown to Greenwich Village, the campus passed into the hands of Bronx Community College, a part of the City University of New York system.

From that moment, the students of Bronx Community College have been essentially educated in second-hand properties, a collection of storied structures designed by Stanford White and a couple kooky Brutalist additions. But no longer! The New York Times reports on the opening of North Hall and Library, the first new building for the college since they moved in.

And what of the fate the Stanford White-designed Gould Library (pictured above), home to the Hall of Fame For Great Americans?  Read about it in the Times article here.

What The World Needs Now: Songwriter, NYU graduate and New Yorker Hal David, known for his collaborations with Burt Bacharach, passed away over the weekend. David was a student at the NYU journalism school, although he would quickly find his calling in the world of pop music, and specifically at Brill Building, the venerable songwriting factory in midtown.

I shall now use this occasion to honor Mr. David by presenting the one of his greatest collaborations with Bacharach. When do I ever get the opportunity to post a video by the Carpenters?

Top picture courtesy New York Public Library