Thursday, January 31, 2013

Grand Central Terminal's Ten Greatest Moments on Film

Grand Central Terminal has seen millions of people rush across its Main Concourse over the past one hundred years, and more than a few movies have captured that commuter ebb and flow.  But while Grand Central is occasionally a backdrop for romance -- especially during World War II, when returning soldiers would arrive to meet their loved ones -- filmmakers have preferred to capture a darker aspect to the landmark.

The Beaux-Arts train station has become an ideal location for thrillers, mysteries, fantasies and horror films, a backdrop for chases and a metaphor for chaos and disorientation.  In the movies, its concourse feels even more cavernous and mythic, its train tunnels havens for the unknown.

During its first half-century, Grand Central was known mostly for its trains -- in particular, the Twentieth Century Limited, the luxurious passenger locomotive that attracted the most famous people in the world.  In fact, the most common place to see a celebrity in the 1930s and 40s would probably have been Grand Central, watching politicians and stars boarding the most famous train in the world.

So it's no surprise that Grand Central's most notable early film appearances relate to the Twentieth Century, including, of course, Twentieth Century, the ribald 1934 comedy that made Carole Lombard a star.  Other glamorous features of this era -- including Grand Central Murder (1942) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1945) -- use Hollywood reconstructions of Grand Central as a backdrop.

Below: A phony version of Grand Central Terminal used in the film The Thin Man Goes Home. (Courtesy On The Set of New York)

As the train station deteriorated after the 1950s -- as train travel itself fell into disregard -- Grand Central became a darker, dangerous place in the movies. The travelers, the commuters, are now a backdrop for chase scenes and violent shootouts, homeless people and even psychos stalking the yellowing, banner-filled concourse of the 1970s and 80s.

Its rehabilitation in the 1990s brought monumentality back to Grand Central and brought it back to the movies as a place of respect and beauty. I would never recommend you watch the remake of Arthur starring Russell Brand except for this particular scene which demonstrates the Terminal's remarkable transformation.

Grand Central makes a brief appearance in the 1988 comedy Midnight Run with Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro. (Courtesy On The Set of New York)

Here are my personal choices for Grand Central's top ten moments in cinema.  I'm sure I'm forgetting a few choice ones, so please add them in the comments section if they come to mind:

10 The Avengers (2012)
The Terminal as a fortress, a hall of justice.  The MetLife Building behind it is completely dismantled and replaced with Iron Man's new headquarters, but nobody would ever think of doing that to Grand Central. In fact, our heroes fight inter-dimensional aliens right in front of it, their phalanx mounted on the overpass below.  As Earth's finest stand in akimbo waiting for the attack, the statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt stands equally defiant in the background.  (For another sci-fi use of Grand Central's exterior, see Will Smith in I Am Legend.)

9  Necrology (1971)
The building has inspired the avant garde as well.  Years after Andy Warhol turned his camera to the Empire State Building, experimental filmmaker Standish Lawder found supernatural inspiration inside Grand Central for this odd little film ostensibly about the afterlife.  Stay for the credits.

8 Spellbound (1945)
This isn't even Alfred Hitchcock's best film usage of Grand Central (see below), but it's notable in that both Grand Central and Pennsylvania Station are used in this psychological thriller starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.  I can't recall any other film that would have included both iconic New York landmarks. With this film, Hitchcock also playfully mocks Grand Central's wartime reputation as a place for departing lovers, even while giving into those romantic impulses.

7 The House on Carroll Street (1988)
This somewhat unsuccessful thriller (with a spectacular cast) is notable for its creativity involving a climactic chase scene up in Grand Central's inaccessible upper tiers.  You can see a little bit of it in this trailer:

6 Superman (1978)
Lex Luther's secret lair, eccentrically decorated, is hidden in a forgotten tunnel underneath Grand Central.  His lackey Otis (Ned Beatty) is tracked to the concourse by police officers, but Luther has set a deadly trap for one of them.  Another reason not to roam the tracks by yourself!

Later, the super villain waxes about the benefits to his Grand Central lair as the trains rumble overhead.

5 A Stranger Is Watching (1982)
Had Lex not been defeated, he would have been sharing the tunnels with the maniacal killer of this schlocky thriller, based on a novel by Mary Higgins Clark.  While this movie is pretty bad, Grand Central is used to superb effect, a veritable haunted house of dark tunnels and abandoned elevators.  There's even mention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's secret elevator!

 4 Carlito's Way (1993)
The famous escalator shootout scene (it's Battleship Potemkin-meets-violent cop show) is probably the goriest scene ever filmed directly in Grand Central, topped by Carlito (Al Pacino) running to meet Penelope Ann Miller.  Let's just say, he misses his train.  Watch the scene here.

3 Seconds (1966)
This bizarre John Frankenheimer drama starring Rock Hudson uses Grand Central Terminal (and a unique camera angle) to set the film's off-kilter and twisted perspective.  It becomes the crossroads where opportunities of a second chance are literally handed to you, if you dare to take them.

2 The Fisher King (1991)
Having hosted various mentally disturbed escapades in prior films, we now get to look in on an actual Grand Central fantasy in this Robin Williams film, as the deranged hallucinations of his character turn the bustling room into a glorious dance floor.

1 North By Northwest (1959)
Has Grand Central Terminal ever looked as beautiful as it does in this pivotal scene from Hitchcock's great 1959 masterpiece?  It gives Cary Grant opportunities to be suave, pensive and fabulous all at once.  It also embodies the tension and danger that would influence other filmmakers in later years to come to Grand Central for inspiration.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

J. P. Morgan Jr. rides the subway and is accosted by a hat

Any of you who ride the 4-5-6 train in rush hour will especially relate to this story.  It takes place, in fact, on that very line, one hundred years ago.

Will B. Johnstone, an artist at the New York Evening World, noticed an interesting sight on his subway ride that morning, February 1, 1913, the day before the opening of Grand Central Terminal.  Crammed up against the wall of the train was J. P. Morgan Jr., son of the famous financier.

Such a sight greatly amused Johnstone. "There stood J. Pierpont Morgan Jr. ignominiously caught in the deadly rush hour!"  Even more remarkable, the writer notes, was the fact that Morgan was a principal financier for the Dual Contracts project, which would greatly expand the subway system and double the length of tracks into the other boroughs.

"I wondered why he was using the subway instead of a diamond-studded limousine? What did he mean by travelling with the common herd and of all times during rush hour?"

At one point, Morgan was accosted by a young woman with "a large velvet hat and the hat had two long stiff quills projecting from it like the horns of a billy goat, and as dangerous. Mr. Morgan's face was impaled between them."

The woman hat jostled about during the bumpy ride, and "[t]he quills began to bob around his face and he was busy trying to avoid them." Others noticed the financier's dilemma and began laughing with him.

"She's going to get me yet," he laughed to another passenger.  "And he was right," Johnstone noted, "for one side of the quill and then the other jabbed him in the face."

At right: Morgan in 1919

Finally at the Grand Central Station**, he had to push his way through the crowd and barely got of the car before the doors closed.

"This is no way to treat royalty," Johnstone laments.

Less than two months after this incident, his father Morgan Sr. would die in Rome, leaving him one of the world's largest business enterprises.  I wonder if he ever rode the subway again after that.

You can read the original article at the Library of Congress.

**The subway station opened in 1904 and rattled away underground throughout the entire construction phase of the terminal above.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Grand Central Terminal: The original plan from 1910

Continuing the celebration of Grand Central Terminal's 100th anniversary, here's a look at the proposed street plan which was run in the New York Tribune on June 26, 1910.

"The front faces on 42nd Street, with a bridge crossing that busy thoroughfare to the Park Avenue slope. Under the vacant blocks to the north lie the tracks, switches and mechanisms of the huge train yard. The surface of these vacant blocks will be occupied by fine buildings, devoted to commerce or to the arts.

Park Avenue is seen stretching away to the north. It is split by a new station and runs around both sides of it, joining again at the bridge over 42nd Street. Cost of this new terminal is estimated at $180,000,000."

This was the beginning of the 'Terminal City' plan, a group of linking buildings with similar design. Sadly, many of those buildings were never built, and those that were have been torn down during the furor of the midtown skyscraper boom.

The plan below shows Terminal City from a different angle, and with new features:

The uniformity intended for Terminal City stands in stark contrast to the multiplicity of towering structures in the area today. In particular, the graceful New York Central Building (today the Helmsley Building) would finally rise to Grand Central's north in 1929. The decidedly ungraceful Pan Am Building (today the MetLife Building) was planned during the late 1950s, when commuter travel by train decreased and Grand Central was considered an antiquated relic.

But it's not what you see that New Yorkers marveled at back in 1910. It's what you didn't see. "[A]ll of  this machinery of this vast terminal -- the signals, the tracks and the hundreds of trains -- will never be seen from the street," proclaimed the 1910 Tribune article. "They will be less in evidence than the engines at the heart of an ocean liner."

Electric trains afforded such a disappearance from street level, creating an entirely new boulevard from 45th Street to 57th Street.  In some serious understatement, the Tribune continues, "These changes will revolutionize the character of this part of the city. Along the new part of Park Avenue will be constructed a mile and a half of imposing apartment houses."

Spectacular apartment complexes would appear on Park Avenue, but mostly above 57th Street.  Commerce would eventually fill in the block below, bringing the most innovative skyscrapers of the 1950s, structures like the Seagram Building at 52nd Street and the Lever House at 53rd Street, buildings which toyed with the city's zoning laws and created new public spaces.

Below: A cross-section plan of the new structure, created in 1905, focuses on what would have focused on the terminal's most magnificent secret -- the buried tracks and public spaces.

Top two images courtesy Library of Congress; bottom image from New York Public Library

Monday, January 28, 2013

Grand Central's golden anniversary: Some ways to celebrate

Above: Interior shots taken most likely before its opening on February 2, 1913

The Grand Central Terminal building turns one hundred years old this Saturday. It's perhaps New York's finest example of Beaux-Arts architecture and a landmark embedded into American culture. And thanks to film and photographs, Grand Central is unusual in that its interior is probably more recognizable to most non-New Yorkers than its exterior.

Here's a few ways to celebrate this special anniversary:

Party in the Terminal:  This Friday, February 1st, the terminal itself will be decked out for its birthday, with  all-day "exhibits, special offers, performances, notable speakers, surprise entertainment, photo opportunities and more," according to their website. They also hint at a "specially designed tribute" by Metro-North.  If you're planning on using the terminal to go and from somewhere that day, you might want to get there early to enjoy some of the festivities.

It will also be the debut of "Grand By Design," an installation in the Vanderbilt Hall event space presenting the terminal's history.

Tour the Terminal: Every Wednesday, the Municipal Art Society sponsors a tour of the terminal, with docents leading groups through its 100 year history is about 75 minutes.  Tours begin at 12:30pm, meet in front of Track 29 in the Main Concourse and have a suggested donation of $10. More information at their website.

Eat and Shop: On February 1st, many shops and restaurants in Grand Central will sell their wares at "1913 prices," including ten-cent scoops of gelato, shoeshines for a dime, and the "75 cent Adirondack cocktail" at the steak house named for Michael Jordan. And if that's even too expensive, Carvel will be giving out hundreds of free ice-cream sandwiches from 2-6pm.

Read about the Commodore: My favorite biography from 2010 was T.J. Stile's captivating story "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt" charting Vanderbilt's journey from the shores of Staten Island as a ferry operator to America's most ruthless transportation mogul.  What's interesting is the almost accidental way in which Vanderbilt got into the railroad business having spent most of his career dominated the waters of New York.

There are also two new books about Grand Central itself: "Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America," co-written by Sam Roberts and Pete Hamill, and "Grand Central Terminal: 100 Years of a New York Landmark" by Anthony W. Robins and the NY Transit Museum.

Listen to our podcast: Download our history of Grand Central here (Episode #45) or you can find it on iTunes.  It's in our second podcast feed of older episodes -- NYC History: Bowery Boys Archives.

Here's the original blog page for our Grand Central podcast, with many more additional photograph.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Designing Tomorrow" glimpses the elegance of modernity via the earnestness of the World's Fairs of the 1930s

The Museum of the City of New York's new exhibition "Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s" examines the aspirational vision of the American future in the automobile age, and the use of a mostly-defunct style of public exhibition as a way to sell that vision.

There were over two dozen World Fairs in the 1930s, several of them in the United States. (The last American Worlds Fair was in New Orleans in 1984.)  While the MCNY show does feature artifacts from some of the other American shows (Dallas, San Diego), it mostly focuses on the biggest and most influential of these events -- the 1939-40 exhibition held out in Flushing-Meadows, Queens.

The Flushing-Meadows extravaganza found optimism in all facets of modernity, from the eagerly awaited expansion of automobile culture to the slickness of modern design infiltrating the middle-class household. The MCNY exhibit is arranged by themes, using prints and dioramas to illustrate what exhibitors thought the future would bring.

Below: A pretentious introduction to the General Motors exhibit Futurama which delighted audiences with a miniaturized depiction of the future (circa 1960) designed by Norman Bel Geddes

Railroad cars transform into rolling luxury hotels. Home conveniences emerge from an industrial horizon of chemicals and plastics. The privileges of living modern even mutates the private home itself, as rooms take on new shapes and purposes to accommodate future conveniences.  In a way, fair exhibitions predicted the non-traditional household; they just assumed it would be the house itself that would change, not the nuclear family residing within it.

Attendees at the fair would have seen their entire reality methodically dissected and upgraded as they wandered from one corporate pavilion to the next. "Designing Tomorrow" leaves out most of the camp associated with World Fairs to illustrate the cold, beautiful and desirable efficiency exhibitors hoped would be associated with their products.

I'm sorry, it leaves out most of the camp. My personal highlight of the MCNY show is the return of Elektro, a brawny, golden robot by Westinghouse who became a spokesman of a product-consuming future. He even smoked cigarettes like all of us would certainly be doing in the upcoming years.

Below: The golden boy in all his mechanical masculine glory

The most powerful objects on display are actually its collection of early fair mockups, drawings of pavilions even more bizarre than those that were built. Be sure to search out an early suggestion for the entrance to the Flushing-Meadows fair, a gigantic Roman centurion that would have been the tallest thing standing in the entire borough. You'll also see a breathtaking early vision the U.N. Headquarters by architectural wizard Hugh Ferriss.

There are examples of some items that would eventually invade American homes, including a gorgeous looking toaster. But who wants toast when we could have had a smoking robot?!

Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s Dec 5 through Mar 31
For more information, visit their website

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In good company: The local significance of Obama's inaugural quote: "Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall"

As many others today are ruminating on the symbolic and historic implications of yesterday's presidential inaugural ceremony, allow me to dwell a little on a curious milestone of far lesser importance.

Until yesterday, no place in New York City has ever been mentioned in a presidential inaugural speech.  Not Ellis Island, not the Statue of Liberty, not Wall Street, not the World Trade Center, none of our fortresses or other towering landmarks.

In fact, New York as a city has actually been name-checked only once. (See below.)  But no individual place has ever been mentioned in what are considered to be the most memorable set of presidential speeches.

That is, until yesterday, when President Barack Obama referenced the name of a West Village gay bar -- Stonewall Inn.

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."

"Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall" represent flashpoints of various American social movements.  With his mention of Stonewall -- representing the Stonewall riots and subsequent street gatherings of June-July 1969, considered the birthplace of the gay-rights movement -- the president has elevated the struggles of gay Americans to those of the women's movement (the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848) and the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s (the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965).

The rhetorical flourish of alliteration unites these movements by the places in which they occurred.  Stonewall thus becomes shorthand for the gay rights movement.  But as it is the actual name of a bar -- still very much in operation, right off Christopher Park -- Stonewall Inn now holds another very special place in history.

The United Nations, of course, has been mentioned a few times, mostly in the 1940s and 50s. (Without surprise, mentions of the international body literally drop off to nothing after that.)  But all references relate only to the legislative body, not the actual place.  In fact, when it was first mentioned in 1949, by President Harry S. Truman -- "We have constantly and vigorously supported the United Nations and related agencies as a means of applying democratic principles to international relations" -- its headquarters in Manhattan had not even been completed.

Below: Federal Hall on Wall Street, site of the first American government and the inauguration of George Washington in 1789

When New York has been mentioned in inaugural addresses, it's because it was the location of the first inaugural address in April 1789, when the seat of American government was in New York.

"This occasion derives peculiar interest from the fact that the Presidential term which begins this day is the twenty-sixth under our Constitution," Benjamin Harrison remarked in his 1889 speech.  "The first inauguration of President Washington took place in New York, where Congress was then sitting, on the 30th day of April, 1789, having been deferred by reason of delays attending the organization of the Congress and the canvass of the electoral vote."

George H.W. Bush makes specific mention of Washington's inauguration in 1989, which happened to be the 200th anniversary of that event. "I have just repeated word for word the oath taken by George Washington 200 years ago, and the Bible on which I placed my hand is the Bible on which he placed his.  It is right that the memory of Washington be with us today, not only because this is our Bicentennial Inauguration, but because Washington remains the Father of our Country."

While this means very little in terms of the city's historical stature, it means a great deal to the gay rights movement, and certainly to the bar itself. Or as Stonewall Inn owner Stacey Lentz recently said: "We're not just a bar. We're the Stonewall. It's like owning Rosa Parks's bus. We don't own the movement, but we own the bus."

For more information on Stonewall Inn, check out our podcast #48 The Stonewall Riots (download here or on iTunes.)  

Pics courtesy NYPL

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ten pictures of the New York winter we haven't had (yet)

Above: Sledding in Brooklyn Heights, from the corner of Henry and Joralemon Streets, according to the caption, ca. 1872-1887.  (Photographed by George Bernard Brainerd, courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

So far this has been pretty much been a low-accumulation winter in New York City, with only a half-inch of measured snow in Central Park so far this season. The worst snowfall was technically last fall,  with that sloppy Nor'easter which hit just a few days after Sandy.

But many of New York City's most powerful blizzards have actually occurred in the months of February and March -- from the legendary Blizzard of 1888 to the most recent Snowicane from February 2010.

These images of a snowy city gone by will feel less interesting once the next big snowstorm happens. But until then, enjoy! And have a wonderful Martin Luther King Jr. Day and safe travels if you're headed to the presidential inauguration.

Click on the pictures for a larger view. In particular, the picture at top and the 1914 photo below definitely have some spectacular details seen up close:

Somewhere in Brooklyn, 1888. Yes, that's a dog in the sled. (Photographed by Breading G. Way. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

Central Park coasting with the kids, 1914 (Library of Congress

Streets of snow in Harlem after a February blizzard in 1899. (LOC)

Manhattan streets after 1905 and 1910 snowstorms, rough going for horse-drawn vehicles. (LOC)

In the throes of a 1914 blizzard, literally stopping streetcars in their tracks. (LOC)

1948. (Courtesy LIFE/Cornell Capa)

And children in Central Park in 1954. Not so different from the scene above taken forty years earlier! (Peter Stackpole/LIFE)

George Washington, draped in snow on Wall Street, at the sub-treasury building (today Federal Hall), 1888. (LOC)

Seems they might have had the same idea one hundred years ago. The headline from the New York Tribune on January 19, 1913:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A very strange coincidence surrounds New York's most famous gangsters and 'Boardwalk Empire' inspirations

Many of the early 20th century's most renown gangsters were born in late January!

Today is Al Capone's birthday. (He's pictured above in his infamous mugshot.) It's also the birthday of gambler/ Jewish mobster Arnold Rothstein.  Joe Masseria, early New York Mafia leader, was also born on this date -- January 17, 1886.

Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson -- the inspiration for Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson -- was born January 20, 1883.  Frank Costello, leader of the Luciano crime family post-Prohibition, was born January 26th.

Papa Johnny Torrio, Capone Chicago mentor, was born on January 20, 1882.  Frankie Yale, another of Capone's gangster employers, was born January 22, 1893.

And if we extend the coincidence even further to times of death, Lucky Luciano died of a heart attack on January 26, 1962.  Meyer Lansky died in Florida on January 15, 1983.  The bootlegger George Remus died on January 20, 1952.

Most of the men above are depicted in some form or another on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. In fact most of the characters from that show appear to have late January birthdays.

I'm not too knowledgable about astrology, but is there something about the gangster way of life that appeals to those that reside on the Capricorn-Aquarius cusp?

Perhaps I should be afraid. My birthday was a few days ago. (Ack.)

Pic courtesy NYPL

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Another art anniversary: Mona Lisa comes to New York! And she's almost drowned in a sprinkler malfunction

Mona mania: New Yorkers line up outside the Met for the hottest ticket in town in 1963

While many artistic institutions will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show next month, New York lovers of more classical paintings will be celebrating another milestone -- the 50th anniversary of the Mona Lisa's visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Leonardo da Vinci's stoic portrait came to America fifty years ago this month, a single-picture loan to the United States (as a special favor to Jackie Kennedy) and accompanied by AndrĂ© Malraux, the French Minister of Cultural Affairs. The first stop was the National Gallery in Washington DC, where over a half million people spent hours in line to gaze at the famous smile.

On February 7, 1963, she made her debut to the public at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the medieval sculpture hall, for a month-long exhibition that would become one of the museums most attended shows in history.  On that first day, thousands lined up outside in the freezing cold to catch a glimpse of the iconic painting; the first in line, a taxi driver named Joseph Lasky, got there at 4:30 in the morning.  By week's end, already a quarter of a million people had visited the museum to see the Italian masterpiece.

Accommodating such a famous painting required some unprecedented changes in protocol. As a favor to the two governments, no admission fee was charged to view the painting, and weekday hours were extended until 9 pm each night.

Thousands of schoolchildren crammed the museum every morning, funneling by the modest-sized painting in a daze. Museum director James Rorimer told the New Yorker, "The dirt we expect, from them and everybody else! The accumulation of dust from scuffling shoes! We'll have literally balls of dust."

From reports, it sounds like they got the dust and air quality under control. The painting was secured by bulletproof glass and a couple Secret Service agents.  But the museum sprinkler system almost created an international incident by nearly destroying the painting in an unplanned shower.

According to a memoir by former museum director Thomas Hoving, he arrived at the museum storeroom one morning to find people frantically scurrying around with towels.

"No one ever discovered why, but some time during the night one of the fire sprinklers in the ceiling broke its glass ampoule....The Mona Lisa, according to the Louvre official, was ok.  He told me that the thick glass covering it had acted like an effective…raincoat."

That incident was never leaked to the press. Actually, this would have been a good time to conceal something from the media as there was a newspaper strike at this time, shuttering many publications.

By the time the painting was packed up aboard the US United States for her journey back to the Louvre, the Mona Lisa had been seen by  well over one million people. According to the New York Times, the museum was able to identify the one-millionth visitor -- one Arthur Pomerantz of New Rochelle -- who was given a reproduction of the painting and gifts for his children.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Art Insanity: The elegant audacity of the Armory Show of 1913, the daring exhibit that awed and outraged America

The monster within the Armory's 'Chamber of Horrors': Marcel Duchamp's 'Nude Descending A Staircase No. 2

PODCAST The Armory Show of 1913 was the mainstream debut of modernist art -- both European and American -- to New York City audiences. Galleries had previously devoted themselves to the great European masters, antiquity and American landscapes as a way to influence the taste of a growing city. But even though vanguards like Alfred Stieglitz debuted artists like Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne into his Fifth Avenue gallery, those names were still barely known to the average New Yorker.

 The Armory Show, located at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue, changed all that, but not without controversy. When the exhibition debuted on February 17, 1913, writers and art critics exploded in shock and outrage. Even a few of the artists were incensed, as people raced by some important American works to get to the scandalous European works in the back.

 This is the story of an important moment in American art history, but also a moment in New York City pop culture, an event that shook society and challenged its beliefs about taste and beauty -- not a small thing in the waning years of the Gilded Age.

At right: Francis Picabia's Dances at the Spring

But you don't need to be fluent in art history to enjoy the wackiness of the Armory Show! This is a tale of one of the biggest and most written-about exhibitions in New York history, a story P.T. Barnum would have found satisfaction in.

STARRING: Pretty much a who's who of your local modern art gallery, with special focus on Marcel Duchamp, Edward Hopper, Robert Henri and Henri Matisse.

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: The Armory Show of 1913

NOTE: I manage to get all the difficult pronunciations as close to correct as my voice is going to get, but then keep saying HENRY Matisse. (It's really pronounced EN-RI.) You'd think with all those Starry Night posters in my youth, I would have caught this....

The interior of the 69th Regiment Armory, showing the vastness of its drill hall. The room would play host to marathons, basketball games, concerts and fashion shows, but none were as famous as perhaps the event that makes the strangest fit into a military building -- a modern art show. (Courtesy NY State Military Museum)

The limousines lined up in front of the Armory Show, certainly carrying away more than a few bewildered (and bemused) visitors. (Pic courtesy Museyon Guides)

The White Slave, by Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, flummoxing crowds in the very first room. (LOC, from photos taken at the show)

The Kiss by Constantin Brancusi, a primitive insult to many. (LOC, from photos taken at the show)

Inside the glorious 'Gallery I' with its collection of Cubist works. Duchamp's eyeopener can be seen in this image. (Courtesy Smithsonian Archive of American Art blog)

This photo of the Duchamp Brothers was run alongside their works in the so-called 'chamber of horrors' Gallery I.  For whatever reason -- intrigue, outrage, attraction -- people became fascinated by the siblings.   From left to right: Marcel Duchamp, Jacque Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon.

Edward Hopper's painting of a sailboat was one of a few American paintings sold during the exhibit. It was mostly the European entries that got the attention of art collectors.

For more in-depth information on the Armory Show, your first stop must be the University of Virginia's invaluable website on the event, featuring a walkthrough of ever gallery, and some exhaustive but interesting analysis.

There will be a great many shows in museums and gallery throughout the United States and internationally this year, being the 100th anniversary. I will list a few here as I find them. However if you know of any that I haven't listed, please put them in the notes below:

-- The New York Historical Society will host an exhibit on the Armory Show starting in October.
"The 2013 exhibition revisits the Armory Show from an art-historical point of view, shedding new light on the artists represented and how New Yorkers responded. It will also place this now-legendary event within the context of its historical moment in the United States and the milieu of New York City in ca. 1911–1913. To that end, music, literature and early film will be considered, as well as the political and economic climate."

-- The Abrons Art Center, part of the Henry Street Settlement, in Manhattan's Lower East Side, has an intriguing take on the Armory Show debuting on February 17, 2013, the exact anniversary of the original show. Called 'DECENTER: An Exhibit on the Centenary of the 1913 Armory Show', the show will explore the question: "What is the legacy of Cubism in the hundred years since the Armory Show's radical display of modern European and American art, and especially, how has this become relevant again in our digital age? The show will exhibit a core group of artworks in the gallery, and also feature a corresponding internet component of digital works in an online gallery. "

-- The Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ, is also opening its exhibit "The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913" on the exact date of the original -- February 17. "The Montclair Art Museum collaborated with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art on a gallery that will be devoted to rare and unique primary documents pertaining to the Armory Show. These include personal letters, floor plans, sales records, admission tickets, catalogues, buttons, and invitations, as well as reproductions of the original installation."

-- The Art Institute in Chicago will be celebrating the show in March with a lecture focusing on some of Chicago's private collectors and will undoubted have more information on Chicago's reception of the exhibition. More information here.

-- And of course there's an annual exhibition called The Armory Show which traces its roots back to the original show. Naturally they'll be having a centennial celebration as well, from March 7-10, 2013, located at Piers 92 & 94 in Manhattan. More info here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, when it was smaller

I'm working on a very art-themed podcast which should be ready for release this Friday.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art will be a supporting player in this week's show, so please enjoy  these early photos of the original building, opened in 1880 and designed by Calvert Vaux (to better accentuate his park) and Jacob Wray Mould, of Belvedere Castle fame.

The building was considered out-of-fashion almost as soon as it was finished, and within a couple decades Richard Morris Hunt had created the museum's more expansive Beaux-Arts facade and wings. What you see here is the old building, next to the new facade, before it was fully consumed by additions.

The postcard and the photo below it gives you a good idea of where the new additions sat in relation to the old building. And this is before the wings were added.

The top four images are courtesy New York Public Library. The last is courtesy Library of Congress.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

'The Abolitionists', first of three parts tonight on PBS

PBS's American Experience debuts its three-part series on American abolitionists of the 19th century.  With two very different films about slavery in movie theaters (Lincoln, Django Unchained), 'The Abolitionists' is certainly a well-timed series, featuring the stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe (no doubt brother Henry Ward Beecher will make an appearance too).

On one hand, this is sure to be an interesting collection of sometimes-interconnecting biographies of men and women bucking convention and fighting against a morally repellent practice locked into America's founding documents.  On the other, the series appears loaded with character reenactments, which can sometimes get in the way of the story.  The production is certainly beautiful, judging from what I've seen so far.

If you'll be watching at 9pm EST tonight, please follow along with me on Twitter (@boweryboys) where I'll try and keep up with additional facts and commentary.


Friday, January 4, 2013

Theodore Roosevelt and the Case of the Master Mind! Is it the Black Hand or something even stranger?

Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, in a rare shot with his pince-nez lowered.

Checking the mailbox was a frightening experience for some New Yorkers almost a century ago.

Some found extortion notes -- threatening letters, demanding large sums of money or else -- courtesy Italian gangsters collectively referred to in the press as The Black Hand.  Most of the targeted addresses belonged to newly arrived wealthy Italian immigrants, often celebrities or successful business owners.  Famed tenor Enrico Caruso was even a victim of the Black Hand's extortion in 1920.  "I laugh, ho ho, to show me myself that I fear not," the singer claimed, although he ended up paying one extortion threat before calling the police after he received a follow-up.

At right: A typical extortion letter attributed to the Black Hand (Courtesy Mafia Today)

The Black Hand was already a frightening and well-publicized threat by 1913, although the number of incidents were probably less than the press would have its readers believe.

It was under this apprehension, on Valentine's Day 1913, that a Mrs. Douglas Robinson arrived at her husband's real estate office on the Upper East Side to open his mail.

Inside one envelope was a single 'blood-red' card, which very simply stated:

"This is the red card to remind you that I have not forgotten. When you receive a black card, you will know that the end is at hand. The Master Mind"

What Mrs. Robinson did not know is that this threatening note had been sent to thousands of New Yorkers that very day. And that it had been preceded just a few days before with another ominous card:

"This is to remind you of an incident in your past, and of my enmity. When you receive a red card it will mean I am drawing near. The Master Mind."

According to the New York Tribune, 40,000 New Yorkers had received such cards in the mail that month. Had Mrs. Robinson known this fact, she might have found safety in numbers and cautiously went about her day.  Instead, in a panic, she reached for the telephone and called New York's police commissioner.

Except not the current commissioner, the ineffectual reformist Rhinelander Waldo.  Instead, she called up New York's most famous police commissioner (from 1895-97), a man who still lived in New York and, oh yes, had been the President of the United States for a few years -- Theodore Roosevelt.

The Colonel was still licking his wounds from an unsuccessful bid the previous year at reacquiring the presidency, as the head of the newly formed Bull Moose Party.  You may wonder how the wife of a real estate broker would have the ready ear of an ex-President, but it is here that I reveal that Mrs. Douglas Robinson (which is how she's presented in press accounts of this incident) is in fact Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Theodore's younger sister. (Pictured at left in 1920, picture courtesy LOC)

"Leave it to me," he assured his sister and promptly called up detectives Hyams and Hughes to investigate the matter.

Going only upon Roosevelt's description, the two detectives began scouring the streets for clues.  They were certainly quite proud to be working on a case personally passed to them by Roosevelt -- probably the most famous New Yorker in America.  Their only liability was that they were working only off of Roosevelt's information -- and his sister had overlooked one rather big piece of information.

While wandering through midtown Manhattan, the detectives struck up a conversation with Edward Gireaux, a booking agent of John Cort, one of America's leading theatrical impresarios.  A Seattle entrepreneur enriched by the Klondike gold rich, Cort, unlike his competitors Klaw & Erlanger and the Shuberts, specialized in promoting a national circuit of legitimate theater.  No musicals for the Cort Circuit! (The Cort Theatre, on West 48th Street, is still hammering out dramas to this day.)

The detectives were only too eager to tell Mr. Gireaux of their mysterious case, delivered to them by Roosevelt directly.  It was only when they informed the agent of the details of the crime that Gireaux must have smiled to himself.

He produced a stack of the very same 'blood-red' cards from his pocket. Perhaps he was passing them out to passers-by. The detectives now saw the entire printed content of the card:

"This is the red card to remind you that I have not forgotten. When you receive a black card, you will know that the end is at hand. 

I will see you at the Harris Theatre.  -- The Master Mind"

'The Master Mind', starring Edmund Breese, was a ragged melodrama about "a dominant personality in a band of criminals," premiering that week at the Harris Theatre at 254 W. 42nd Street.  The cards had been nothing more than a slightly inappropriate bit of viral marketing.

Below: Newspaper advertisement for the Master Mind. 'Even the police were thrilled!' 

And it worked!  The Master Mind played for several months despite some tepid reviews ("headachy to follow") and was later turned into a film starring Lionel Barrymore.  You can read a contemporary novelization of the play here, featuring such delectable bon mots as "You have made your own beds! Now you shall lie in them. Understand that, please! I have said it -- I, the Master Mind!"

The star of the play Breese would himself go on to the silent pictures and co-starred in the Oscar-winning All Quiet On The Western Front in 1930.

As for Theodore Roosevelt, he would publish his autobiography in 1913 and by year's end would embark on a lengthy journey to South America.  Corinne Roosevelt Robinson would later dabble in politics herself, backing Warren G. Harding in 1920 and even recording this radio message in support.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Four New York City landmarks turn 100 years old this year

1) Grand Central Terminal
The Grand Central Depot was first built at 42nd Street in 1871 as a hub for Cornelius Vanderbilt's railroad operations. It was greatly expanded at the turn of the century. and by this time, the tracks headed north were electrified and buried, creating Park Avenue.

The present terminal was conceived in 1903 by two teams of architects and took a decade to construct. Meanwhile, the tracks heading north, now sunken and electrified, were covered with a new street and its air rights sold to become Park Avenue.

The ne plus ultra of Beaux-Arts New York opened in February 1, 1913, and its first train, the Boston Express, left the station two days later.

For more information, listen to our podcast on Grand Central Terminal (Episode #45)

2) Woolworth Building
The Woolworth Building and the current One World Trade Center are separated by a couple blocks -- and one century. Just as New Yorkers marveled last year at what will be the city's tallest building as it began to tower over downtown Manhattan, so too did the New Yorkers of 1912, at the ornate Cass Gilbert structure rising near City Hall. In January of 1912, newspapers were already proclaiming Woolworth the crown of ":the world's greatest construction era."

One World Trade Center will open later in 2013. The Woolworth opened on April 24, 1913 as New York's tallest building until 1930. As you can tell from the 1910s postcard above, it rose next to the garish old New York Post Office at the foot of City Hall Park.

For more information, listen to our podcast on the Woolworth Building (Episode #76)

3) The Apollo Theatre
The theater that eventually became one of America's top spotlight for new entertainers was constructed in 1913 -- its architect, George Keister, designed many great theaters of the day, including the Belasco -- and quickly became a home for Harlem burlesque acts under the name Hurtig and Seamon's New Burlesque Theater.  While far from Times Square's Broadway district, its stage has actually outlasted most of the theaters there.

It reopened in 1933 as the 125th Street Apollo Theater. It was around this time that the doors were opened to African-American entertainers.  Its 'amateur nights' would soon become world-famous for discovering major talent.

For more information, listen to our podcast on the Apollo Theatre (Episode #15)

4) Hotel McAlpin
New Yorkers got a look at Herald Square's Hotel McAlpin -- the tallest hotel in the world at the time -- in a lavish open house on December 29, 1912.  Thousands marveled at its almost absurd size, suitable for 2,500 guests and 1,500 employees.  It was ready to welcome guests with the new year.

"The McAlpin has many features peculiar to it among hotels," proclaimed the New York Times. "For one thing there is a woman's floor to which no men are permitted and where even the clerks are women ...The twenty-second floor is devoted exclusively to men." And the 16th floor was known as the 'Sleepy Sixteenth', the silent floor.

Today the Hotel McAlpin is an apartment complex, the Herald Towers.

For more information, listen to our last podcast on the history of Herald Square (Episode #146)

Note: I don't think the McAlpin is officially landmarked, only one in the historical sense.

Courtesy 1) Wurts Brother/NYPL; 2) NYPL; 3) Long Wharf Theatre; 4) NYPL