Friday, June 27, 2014

Cleopatra's Needle and the Secret of the New York Freemasons

The Obelisk, Central Park, New York City.

A cheerful postcard of the obelisk, 1917, American Art Publishing Co, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 PODCAST Cleopatra's Needle is the name given to the ancient Egyptian obelisk that sits in Central Park, right behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This is the bizarre tale of how it arrived in New York and the unusual forces that went behind its transportation from Alexandra to a hill called Greywacke Hill.

The weathered but elegant monolith was created thousands of years ago by the pharaoh Thutmose III.  Thanks to the great interest in Egyptian objects in the 19th century -- sometimes called Egyptomania -- major cities soon wanted obelisks for their own, acquired as though they were trophies of world conquest.  France and England scooped up a couple but -- at least in the case of the ill-fated vessel headed to London -- not without great cost.

One group was especially fascinated in the Alexandrian obelisks.  The Freemasons (their symbols at right) have been a mysterious and controversial fraternity who have been involved in several critical moments in American history (including the inauguration of fellow Mason George Washington.) A Mason engineer and adventurer named Henry Honeychurch Gorringe discovered an incredible secret on the remaining Alexandria obelisk, a secret that might link the secretive organization to the beginning of human civilization.

But how do you get a 240 ton object, the length of a 7-story building, across the Atlantic Ocean and propped up in New York's new premier park?  We let you in on Gorringe's technique and the curious Freemasons ceremony that accompanied the debut of the obelisk's cornerstone.

PLUS: We have a secret or two to reveal ourselves in this episode. This is a must-listen podcast!

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 it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #167 Cleopatra's Needle and the Freemasons' Secret


And we would like to again thank our new sponsor Squarespace!  Squarespace, the all-in-one platform that makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website or online portfolio.  For a free trial and 10% off (your first purchase), go to and use offer code BOWERY.

Thutmose III, who commanded thousands to construct his obelisks, pictured in a relief in Karmac:

The Masonic Chart by Currier & Ives, 1876, created a few years before the arrival of the obelisk. And another below it, from 1872

From a jewelry advertisement, meant to clarify some of the levels and organizations within the Freemasons, although I'm sure this equally confused or frightened some people! [source]

The New York Masonic Hall on 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue -- the original hall (which stood at this corner during the retrieval of Cleopatra's Needle) and the later 1911 structure which still stands there today. (Pictures courtesy NYPL)

A cigarette card recounting the terrible tale of the London obelisk.   (NYPL)

The hero of this episode -- Henry Honychurch Gorringe

Gorringe prepares the obelisk for transportation.  Even though it holds aloft an American flag, the treasure was actually a gift to the City of New York. (LOC)

Sliding the obelisk into the hatch of a refitted Egyptian postal ship.

Getting the obelisk past the trains of the Hudson River Railroad! Thankfully, a Vanderbilt was in charge of both the tracks and the obelisk project.

The 'bridge' which slowly took the obelisk across Manhattan, dismantled and rebuilt as the object moved eastward. (The following images are courtesy Torben Retboll)

Both the obelisk and the Met were new features to Central Park in 1880.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The religious controversy behind a lonely Roman column just standing around by itself in Flushing Meadows Park

The second oldest manmade object in New York City -- outside, that is, not in a museum or private collection -- is a solitary little Roman column built in 120 AD for the Temple of Artemis in the ancient city of Jerash.  It once stood among a chorus of 'whispering columns', creating an effect in the temple which would magnify the human voice.

So why is it standing all alone in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens?

At right: The column stands alone, with the Unisphere in the background. Courtesy Flickr/Christoslilu

It was a gift of the Kingdom of Jordan for the New York World's Fair of 1964-65, presented on April 22, 1964, by the young King Hussein to none other than Robert Moses. What did those two have to talk about?

The Jordanian Pavilion at the World's Fair was a particularly unusual addition to the unofficial (and incomplete) league of nations at the fair. Despite its almost alien appearance -- curved and encrusted with gold mosaics -- it was one of the most religious buildings there, embodying imagery of both the Christian and Muslim faiths.

Sculptural displays of Stations of the Cross by Antonio Saura decorated the exterior, and bright stained glass windows lit up spectacularly at night.  The Dead Sea Scrolls were displayed alongside a replica of the Dome of the Rock, and visitors could shop at a jewelry bazaar or eat traditional Middle Eastern food in the snack shop.

But despite the many artifacts of great historical provenance, the most controversial thing in this odd building were a set of newly painted murals.

Some Jewish visitors to the pavilion were immediately offended by one particular mural depicting a young refugee expounding in a lengthy text about the Israeli-Palestinian situation at the Jordanian border.  "The strangers, once thought terror's victims, became terror's practitioners," it said, implicating the Israelis (but never mentioning them by name).

"But even now, to protect their gains, illgot, as if the lands were theirs and had the right," went the mural, "they're threatening to disturb the Jordan's course and make the desert bloom with warriors."

Below:  The controversial Jordanian mural (Courtesy the excellent tribute site NYWF64 )

Organizers at the American-Israeli Pavilion wrote Moses to complain, saying the murals were not in keeping with the fair's theme of "Peace Through Understanding."  Moses (pictured below) initially rejected the request, but Mayor Robert Wagner, perhaps in an intentional slight to the former parks commissioner, promised to have the murals removed.

Members of the City Council even proposed a bill forcing the fair to remove the mural.  The Jordanians replied that they would rather close the pavilion than tear down the murals under pressure.  Israeli protesters picketed the pavilion;  at one point, the Jordanian flag was taken and temporarily replaced by the Israeli flag by a protester.

Of course, as a result, the Jordanian Pavilion became hugely popular in the early days of the fair, with thousands of visitors streaming in to see what the fuss was about.

The Isaeli pavilion then unveiled its own mural as a response to the Jordanian mural.  Further lawsuits, even fistfights, ensued over the controversy. In the end, none of the murals were removed.

What got sadly overshadowed in all this, of course, was the Column of Jerash, which could have been made of plaster for all the attention it received.

After the fair ended in 1965, the pavilions were mostly all torn down, but the column stayed behind, making the park its home for several decades now.  Today you can find it near the Unisphere next to a plaque which reads:



Okay, so that's the second oldest large manmade object in New York City?  What's the oldest?

That's the subject of our new podcast tomorrow so stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The wonderful mysteries of the Guggenheim Museum, the Frank Lloyd Wright ziggurat turned on its head

From inside Frank Lloyd Wright's inverted ziggurat (Photo courtesy Thais)

It's ancient mysteries week on the Bowery Boys! What, you ask, I thought you only did New York City history?  In fact, at least two great Manhattan landmarks evoke the great mysteries of ancient times, meant to bring mystical energy and revelation to one of the world's greatest cities.

Here's a replay of a podcast we recorded back in October 2008 on the history of the Guggenheim Museum, a space-age upside-down ziggurat originally designed to hold only the most unfathomable non-objective art in the world.

The spiral-ramped wonder that is the Guggenheim began as the dream of three colorful characters -- a weathy art collector, a severe German artist and her rich patron art-lover.  So how did they convince the most famous architect in the world to sign on to their dream for a modern art "museum temple"?  Come meander with us through the Guggenheim's quirky history. Co-starring Robert Moses!

Photographed by Walter Sanders, Life Magazine

PODCAST REWIND A special illustrated version of the podcast on the Guggenheim Museum (Episode #67) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed.  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. So dive into this weird, wild history of one of New York's great museums!

When we recorded this, George W. Bush was still president of the United States, and the Guggenheim was just reopening after a major renovation.  So even this podcast is a bit of history in itself!

Download it here or just subscribe to our archive feed -- on iTunes or directly here. You can also stream it on Stitcher, although due to file incapability, it won't be illustrated.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Fejee Mermaid, New York's original mermaid freak

In celebration of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade this Saturday, let's give a little love to New York original mermaid queen -- the hideous Fiji (Fejee) Mermaid!

This sickening Frankenstein monster -- comprising a monkey's head sewn onto a fish torso -- was displayed in  PT Barnum's American Museum off and on for almost twenty years.  Believe it or not, Barnum actually leased it from an owner who had bought it off of sailors.  It's actual connection to the Fiji Islands remains tenuous at best.

"[M]any naturalists and scientific men who have examined it assert that it is absolutely the work of Nature. Others however insist that its existence is a natural impossibility.  When doctors disagree, the PUBLIC must decide."

Here's how the mermaid was advertised in the newspapers:

This is what it actually looked like:

This was classic Barnum bait-and-switch.  In fact, he relied on the artifact's somewhat disappointing appearance to give it a bit of authenticity. See, why would I fake something that looked like this? was the implication.

The mermaid first arrived in New York in November 1842 after a smash debut in Boston,"where her ladyship [referring to the mermaid] has astonished thousands of visitors."  Thousands flocked to Barnum's display at a space called Concert Hall (at 404 Broadway) to take in a glimpse of this bizarre creature.  In its first week at the American Museum, Barnum raked in three times his average revenue.

From Barnum's autobiography: "The public appeared to be satisfied, but as some persons always will take take things literally, and make no allowances for poetic license even in mermaids, an occasional visitor, after having seen the large transparency in front of the hall, representing a beautiful creature half woman and half fish, about eight feet in length, would be slightly surprised in finding that the reality was a specimen of dried monkey and fish that a boy a few years old could easily run away with under his arm."

So popular was the exhibit that the old museum of Rubens Peale in today's City Hall Park debuted its own mermaid, a parody monster called the Fud-Ge Mermaid:

By the 1850s, the Fejee Mermaid was one of a cast of oddities featured at Barnum's museum. By this point, the grotesque object was probably a commons sight for regular museum goers.  I imagine it, perhaps, with a light coating of dust, possibly a cobweb.  Below: An advertisement from the Daily Tribune, 1855:

Whatever became of the mermaid?  Some say she disappeared during a fire at the museum.  I'm not sure she was still there when Confederate spies attempted to burn down the museum on November 25, 1864.  But she lives on as an icon of fabulous hoax, "one of the most scientific fakes ever perpetrated upon the American public." [source]

 And she lives on in our hearts. How can you resist a face like that?

Top image courtesy the Lost Museum (CUNY), an excellent online resource about Barnum's American Museum.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Bowery Boys podcast started 7 years ago today!

Seven years ago this evening, Tom and I recorded the first Bowery Boys podcast.  The topic was Canal Street and Collect Pond, a subject we re-recorded for our 50th episode.  Maybe, one day, we'll let you all hear that original show!  It was very bad, but it does linger on a laptop somewhere, and there are obviously a few dozen people out there who might still have it.

If you like what we do here at the Bowery Boys, please consider spreading the love in the following ways:

Our main objective with the Bowery Boys is to spread the love of history and the appreciation of this unbelievable city.  You don't have to live in New York City to enjoy the stories.  Tell your friends and family about our show!  Maybe they'd like the history of a particular aspect of New York history -- politics (The Boy Mayor), food (the Kings of New York Pizza),  sports (New York Yankees), finance (New York Stock Exchange), technology (Electric New York), music (Tin Pan Alley), more music (CBGB's), movies (Birth of the Film Industry), celebrities (Hotel Theresa) or urban planning (Robert Moses).

Next month I will debut a brand new Bowery Boys walking tour for purchase! To mark that event, the last Bowery Boys walking tour of Washington Square Park has been marked down on CD Baby to just $2.99!  You can buy it on iTunes, Amazon and other places as well, but it's still full priced at those places. (We do get the profits from those sales, but I don't control the pricing.)

It's a really fun tour, and, while it's designed to be listened to while inside the park, you don't have to actually be here to enjoy it!  But if you are in New York, it's a perfect way to enjoy one of New York City's greatest parks.

You can buy it here -- Washington Square Park: Audio History Tour.

Thanks to your donations already, we've been able to redesign our graphics, get some new recording accessories and actually acquire a few necessary reference materials.  We have some top-secret expansion plans that we will announce in the coming months.  If you've enjoyed the Bowery Boys podcast and blog and want to help out, you can donate any amount on our PayPal site.

Here's your new look for the spring! Proclaim your love of New York history and the Bowery Boys podcast and blog with these two new exclusive T-shirts.  

The gold-on-black model is called The Boss Tweed, great for either a night out on the town at Delmonico's or an all-nighter at a Five Points stale beer dive.  
The red-on-white model is called The Stuyvesant, perfect for any budding director-general looking for something fashionable to wear to the beach, gym or rowdy Dutch port town.  

The shirts are $20 apiece (XL and larger $25) plus shipping.  You can purchase them here: the official Bowery Boys Shopify store.

To those who live in New York -- we are looking for option to sell these shirts locally. (We know paying shipping fees for a New York shirt is kind of annoying.)  If you have any suggestions, please email us!

Thanks for supporting the Bowery Boys.  Have a great New York week (or weekend) whether you live here or not!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Inside Gimbels traverse, the secret perch near Herald Square

Looking up to the Gimbels traverse overhead on 32nd Street (Flickr/Docking Bay 93)

One of our podcast listeners Alexander Rea sent over the following photographs of a tucked-away place in one of the busiest areas of New York City -- the Gimbels traverse on W. 32nd Street, in the Herald Square shopping district.

No doubt you've walked around the city and seen other sorts of traverses, those overhead bridges that link two buildings together, several stories up.  But the Gimbels traverse is perhaps the most interesting and the most beautiful in New York.  Today, this ornate treasure amusingly hangs right over Jack's 99 Cent Store.  Here's a bit of its history, revised from something I wrote a few years ago:

Macy's kicked off the Herald Square department store district when it transferred here from its original 14th Street home in 1902.  [Listen to our Ladies' Mile podcast for more information.]  Soon other department-store competitors of Macy's flocked to the neighborhood in the early part of the 20th century. One strange vestige of this retail nostalgia still exists, in the form of a fabulous green copper traverse above W. 32nd Street.

Gimbels arrived in the Herald Square area in 1910 with a building designed by no less than Daniel Burnham (of Flatiron Building fame).  Gimbels was a more than worthy adversary of nearby Macy's.  The early catchphrase 'Well, would Macy's tell Gimbels?' exemplified the top-secret, competitive tactics of the two retail giants

Gimbels vied for attention with such wacky publicity stunts as sponsorship of a daredevil airplane race that sailed over the department store in 1911.  But despite (or perhaps, because of) other innovations such as the first 'bargain basement', Gimbels never reached the same hallmarks of class and reputation that Macy's did.

In 1925, Gimbels decided to link its Herald Square store to a recently acquired annex across the street, via a custom traverse, a beautiful copper bridge, three stories tall, created by Richmond H. Shreve and William F. Lamb, a teeth-cutting project for two young architects who would go on to help design the Empire State Building.

Both the original Gimbels store and its annex have been radically modified over the years. Thankfully, the copper bridge (now, like the Statue of Liberty, in bright verdigris) has been left virtually intact.  Despite some fears that it might be getting ripped down, the musty but still beautiful sky bridge still hangs high above shopper's heads, a reminder of a universe of cut-throat department-store wars.  (Inset pictures courtesy Flickr/moufle, Docking Bay 93)

Below: A sketch, dated 1927, by Gerald K Geerlings, showing the construction of the Gimbels traverse. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Rea, who works in the old Gimbels building (today the Manhattan Mall), was recently granted brief access into the traverse, which spends most its existence sealed off and empty.  Here are some of the images he was able to capture in his brief time inside, revealing some old signage and the world outside from this rare vantage.  Thanks for sharing, Alexander!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Troubled Waters: The story of the Grand Republic steamboat, the cursed sister ship of the General Slocum

Above: The Grand Republic steamship. As you can see from its paddlewheel, it was a twin to the General Slocum [source]

This could not have made New Yorkers feel very safe about even the briefest of river excursions.

Days after the General Slocum excursion steamer caught fire and sank in the East River, killing over 1,000 people, its older sister ship the Grand Republic -- a twin of the doomed vessel, owned by the same company -- kept operating along the waters of New York Harbor.

To many, it looked like the ghost of the Slocum.

The Grand Republic often ran in tandem with the Slocum, transporting passengers to the seaside amusements of the Rockaways.  During the month of June 1904, the Grand Republic was assigned to the Hudson River, while the Slocum ran the Long Island Sound.

An advertisement in the New York Evening World, June 10, 1904

After the Slocum tragedy, steamboat inspectors were heavily scrutinized and excursion companies were accused of endangering lives for a fast dollar.

Rallying to the side of safety was, of all people, the venerated Daniel Sickles, former Congressman and Civil War officer.  (You may remember him from his early days back when he killed the son of Francis Scott Key.)

The retired politician had no tolerance for the bureaucrats he believed were responsible for the Slocum disaster.

"Scalp those moribund Federal officials who sit with their roll-top desks and draw their salaries for doing nothing while human life is allowed to be sacrificed by the hundreds," he said.  "Only yesterday, I am informed the Grand Republic was allowed to leave her wharf with more passengers than the law allows.  Broadside these fellows and let every man and woman write President [Theodore] Roosevelt a letter demanding an investigation." [source]

Sickles made good on his word, writing Roosevelt and lashing out at the steamer companies in no uncertain terms, the overcrowded General Republic his chief example of their continued malfeasance.

Below: A graphic on the Grand Republic in a book called American Steam Vessels. "Built in 1878" "This steamboat was the largest ever constructed for excursion purposes exclusively at the port of New York."

The Slocum disaster obviously hit business hard for the entire excursion industry.  The weekend after the Slocum sank, the Grand Republic was supposed to host another church group for a tour of the Hudson, but, understandably, only one-fourth of its passenger list arrived.  The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, owner of the Slocum and Grand Republic, went out of business, and the Grand Republic was sold to another concern.

The captain of the Grand Republic steamer John Pease had been responsible for inspections on the Slocum and was eventually indicted, "criminally responsible for the Slocum disaster."

Still that did not take the Grand Republic off the waters. 'THE GRAND REPUBLIC STILL RUNS," declared the Tribune on July 4, 1904.

Below: A view of the Midland Beach pier, where excursion steamers would frequently dock. (NYPL)

Four days later, the Grand Republic almost crashed into another steamer off the coast of Coney Island.  Two weeks later, with 500 passengers aboard, it slammed into the Kismet steam yacht.  In August, the boat was revealed to have the same sort of rotten life preservers that had so doomed the Slocum.

Still that did not take the Grand Republic off the waters. "GRAND REPUBLIC DEFIES ORDERS," declared the Evening World on August 3, 1904.

Below: The Grand Republic, illustration by Samuel Ward Stanton

The steamboat owners argued with the New York inspectors in the press, neither looking very trustworthy.  Eventually the boat owners surrendered the Grand Republic to the government for inspection.  Believe it or not, even with hundreds of life preservers declared 'rotten' and promptly removed, the boat was eventually declared safe, although its capacity was greatly lowered -- from 3,750 to 1,250 passengers, a major financial blow to the owners.

It led a quiet career for many years afterwards, although many feared the boat's association with the doomed General Slocum and refused to ride it.  It resumed trips to the Rockaways and Coney Island, taking tens of thousands of people through New York Harbor for many, many years.  And it even returned to taking church groups on day excursions, similar to the journeys that the General Slocum had taken.

But the boat would continue to get into rather significant accidents.  In 1915, even the suggestion of fire during one voyage sent a thousand people scrambling for the life preservers, resulting in several injuries.  In a disturbing parallel with the Slocum, "[w]omen shrieked as they were knocked down by the mob that surged about the lifeboats." [source]

On August 1, 1922, the Grand Republic smashed into another boat in the Hudson River, injuring over a dozen people.  Luckily the boat was filled with Boy Scouts, who calmed the panicked passengers. (Below, from the Evening World)

You might think this would spell the end for the old steamboat, but no!  It remained in the waters, continuing to transport passengers to upstate New York, one of the oldest vessels in service.\

The Grand Republic, like its sister ship, was brought down by fire, although luckily without the terrible casualties.  In 1924, while docked along 155th Street, a severe dockside blaze caught several boats on fire, including the Grand Republic.

The fire erupted late at night, and thirty men were sleeping aboard the boat at that time.  Fortunately, this was the era of the automobiles; car horns from a nearby street awoke two seamen, who safely evacuated the crew.  The Grand Republic, however, was lost, eventually sinking into the Hudson River.

By the time of its demise, the boat seems to have shaken off much of its bad reputation.  Later that year, in a sort-of obituary to the excursion steamer industry, the New York Times declared, "[C]ertainly the Grand Republic was a grand success as an excursion boat."