Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Little Africa" -- Minetta Lane and Minetta Street


Unknown to most, in the 17th Century the Dutch living in New Amsterdam at the tip of Manhattan island collected an annual fee from "partially freed" black slaves who were allowed to own property far north of the walled village.  The land that these early Afro-Americans farmed was around a brook the Algonquins called Mannette -- variously translated as "Spirit Water" or "Demon Water."

The Dutch interpretation was Mintje Kill, or "little stream," which eventually became "Minetta."  The trout-filled brook flowed, roughly, from where 6th Avenue and 21st Street is today to the Hudson River.  The black farmers used the stream bank as a pathway, which became known in the 18th Century as "the Negroe's causeway."   After the brook was covered over in the 1820s, the well-trodden path became Minetta Lane from MacDougal Street, turning into Minetta Street and curving towards Bleecker -- following the old stream's course.

Here the first enclave of blacks in New York established themselves.  In 1827 slavery was abolished in New York and most of the city's large black population was centered in this area.  By the 1840s little curvy Minetta Street was lined with the humble houses of the poor while only three blocks away on Bleecker Street was the fashionable Depau Row. In these expensive, marble-halled homes wealthy citizens like the retail magnate A. T. Stewart lived.

Many of the original residents of Minetta Street moved northward in the 1860s.  Emancipated slaves who fled the South, however, increased the numbers in what became known as "Little Africa."   In the center of what is now 6th Avenue sat St. Benedict the Moor, the first black Catholic church in the city.

As the century progressed, Minetta Street grew seedier and more dangerous.  In 1890 reformer Jacob Riis ranked Little Africa as the social “bottom” of the West Side of Manhattan.  He described the homes where the impoverished blacks lived as "vile rookeries."  Around the same time author Stephen Crane visited Little Africa, probably doing research for his "The Monster."

Black and Tan Saloon in Little Africa -- photo Jacob Reiis, NYPL Collection
He spoke of residents by their nicknames: No-Toe Charley, Bloodthirsty (a large and "hideous" murderer), Black-Cat (a bandit), and Apple Mag.  Dingy taverns called "black and tan" saloons because they served both races dotted the area.  Minetta Street was notorious for its stabbings, murders and muggings until the new police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, took matters into his own hands.  Roosevelt replaced the captain of the local precinct and a crack-down was initiated.  In 1896 Crane revisited the area and remarked, "There is probably no street in New York where the police keep closer watch than they do in Minetta Lane.”


Black and Tan Saloon -- Photo by Jacob Reiis - NYPL Collection
Mixed in with the criminal element were the upstanding, industrious black citizens who simply had nowhere else to go.  As the century closed, there were 1200 blacks in the Minetta area and the number of black churches had grown.  Census records show in 1900 that living in this dangerous environment were families like that of Morgan J. Austin, a black waiter, with his Irish wife Annie and their eight children.  Their fifteen year old son was working in a laundry to help out.

By 1910 the Austins had Annie's mother living with them, two more children were working, and they had taken in a lodger.  Minetta Street was no longer exclusively black.  Poor Italians and Irish searching for cheap housing mixed in.  The churches of Our Lady of Pompeii and Saint Anthony of Padua were built as the area around Little Africa became increasingly Italian.

A few years later Vincent Pepe bought up almost all of the houses and tenements on both sides of Minetta Street.  On the west side he combined 15 buildings and created a common garden to the rear with an outside entrance.  Calling his development "The Minettas," he wrote ''The artist, the writer, the creator of beauty in any medium -- these are the men for whom the Minettas should be preserved.''

In the 1920s artists began looking towards the Village as a new Bohemia -- like the West Bank of Paris.  Curving Minetta Street with its lowly buildings was undeniably picturesque.  The New York Times, in 1923 remarked that Minetta Street was "As free from noise and as peaceful as through miles away."

Artists began moving into the little houses where only recently several indigent families were crammed in.  In 1924 Pepe duplicated his earlier effort on the east side of the street with another garden-backed group of buildings.  The Minetta Tavern opened a block away in 1937 attracting regulars like Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Eugene O'Neill, E. E. Cummings, and Dylan Thomas.  The neighborhood was changing.

Photograph NYPL Collection

No one would remember Little Africa by the 1960s.  No one would remember that Minetta Brook still runs under the pavement somewhere.  In 1960 The Fat Black Pussycat opened in what had been The Commons, a cafe on Minetta Street.  Here entertainment hopefuls took the stage hoping to be noticed.  Mama Cass Elliot started here.  So did Tiny Tim. And so did Richie Havens and Shel Silverstein.


Today there is no trace of Little Africa on Minetta Street.  Even The Fat Black Pussycat has been replaced with a Mexican restaurant, although the painted brick sign still remains.  The courtyards installed by Vincent Pepe are still there, although a little care-worn.  And houses on Minetta Street, once the haunt of No-Toe Charley, are selling for between $3 and $5 million.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

The 1884 Villard Houses

photo NYPL Collection


In 1853, at the age of 18, Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard came to the U.S. from his native Bavaria without his parent's approval or knowledge.  The boy was a progressive thinker, his father a conservative one.  Their political differences finally drove Ferdinand to board a ship for America, never to return. Upon his arrival he promptly changed his name to Henry Villard to conceal his identity and possible forced return.

Henry's early life in the States was not dull.  He became a journalist for several midwest newspapers, accompanied Lincoln during his campaign and rode the presidential train with him.  Villard covered the Civil War for the New York Tribune, and was Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in 1865.  A confirmed pacifist, after the war he married Helen Frances Garrison, the daughter of the anti-slavery advocate William Lloyd Garrison.

By 1881 Villard was president of the Northern Pacific Railway, owned the New York Evening Post and The Nation and founded the Edison General Electric Company, which later became General Electric.  It was time for the Villards, who were living in an apartment on 17th Street, to have a home deserving of their social status.

Villard commissioned the fledgling firm of McKim, Mead and White to design a complex of six unified mansions on Madison Avenue at 51st Street.  The concept of separate houses designed to appear as a single structure was not new, but was rare in New York.  The firm, only three years old, used Rome's Palazzo della Cancelleria as its inspiration.  The result was a U-shaped Italian Renaissance palace; four homes opened onto the courtyard while two had entrances on 51st Street.

photo NYPL Collection
While the plans were still being drawn up, the Real Estate Record and Guide presumed, in 1881, that Villard's strategy behind his vision of courtyard-facing homes was to "secure privacy and get rid of tramps, and to live in a quiet and secluded way."  When completed the courtyard was accessed through a lacy cast iron fence the gateway of which was joined by an scrolled arch and lantern.

The interiors were all unique, using the finest materials and artisans.  Artists like Augustus St. Gaudens carved exquisite mantels, intricate wooden parquet floors involving tens of thousands of hand-cut pieces were installed and vaulted spaces were encrusted with elaborate mosaics.



Intricate mosaic and wooden parquetry floors - photos NYPL Collection

photo NYPL Collection
All six homes were completed in 1884.  The Evening Post praised the restrained architecture, preferring it to what it termed the "vulgar" mansions a block away on Fifth Avenue.

Unfortunately, Villard lost his fortune around the time the homes were completed and Elisabeth Mills Reid, wife of New York Tribune editor Whitlaw Reid, purchased the Villard residence.  Although in a decade or two the 5th Avenue millionaires would abandon midtown, moving northward ahead of the encroaching stores and hotels, the wealthy owners in the Villard Houses remained.  As late as 1925 Mrs. Reid was still living at No. 451 with her 17 servants, including four footmen and two French cooks.


But while the owners did not flee the Villard Houses, they did eventually die, leaving their grand residences to be taken over by other interests.  After her death, Mrs. Reid's home was turned into Women's Military Services Club in 1943.  Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia was there for the dedication during which he wistfully said of the old home, "You won't see any more private mansions like this."

By the end of World War II in 1945, more than a quarter of a million military women had spent the night in Mrs. Reid's glorious mansion.  Their rooms cost them 50 cents a night.

While various concerns took over different houses, Random House and the Archdiocese of New York, for example; much of the interior detailing was astonishingly preserved.  In 1974 hotelier Harry Helmsley proposed a 51-story hotel on the site.  According to his plan the interiors of the homes, which had been landmarked in 1968, would be gutted and the eastern facades stripped off.

Preservationists bristled.  And Helmsley listened.  His hotel was redesigned in a more sympathetic glass and dark metal and original interiors would be preserved.  He commissioned architects Emery Roth & Sons and Hardy Holz­man Pfeiffer to design the modern structure and integrate the 1884 houses.  Started in 1977, the project was com­ple­ted in 1980.  The brownstone blocks removed from the rear of the houses were storehoused and is used even today for reparation of the historic facade, making for seamless restoration when needed.







The Villard Houses as part of the Helmsley Palace mark an outstanding and creative reuse of vintage structures.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The House that a Necklace Bought -- The Morton Plant Mansion



At the turn of the last century Fifth Avenue in midtown was known as "Millionaires' Row."  Block after block of mansions, each attempting to outdo the other, lined the avenue from the 30s north to Cornelius Vanderbilt's massive chateau at 57th Street.  In 1902, following the demolition of the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, William K. Vanderbilt offered the corner lot at 52nd Street and 5th Avenue for sale. 

Morton F. Plant, the son of railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant, purchased the land, agreeing to Vanderbilt's stipulation that it could not be used for commercial purposes for 25 years.

Plant commissioned English-born architect Robert W. Gibson to design his residence.  Construction would take three years to complete; but the results were dazzling.  Gibson produced a marble and granite Italian Renaissance mansion; one of the most tasteful and elegant on the avenue.

With its entrance on 52nd Street, Plant's house turned its shoulder to the many Vanderbilt family houses that clustered around it.  Over the doorway a stone balcony projected under a classic pediment.  An ambitious stone balastrade surmounted the cornice, under which an ornate frieze was pierced by four-paned windows.  The Plants established themselves as major players in the Fifth Avenue neighborhood.

In the meantime, things were changing downtown.  The brownstone mansions of John Jacob and William Astor at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street had been replaced by the combined Waldorf and Astoria hotels.  Commerce was creeping up the avenue.  By the time Morton and Nellie Plant moved into their new home, wealthy residents in the 30s were already beginning to abandon their homes and flee northward.




Photograph NYPL Collection


Morton was a yachtsman and owner of baseball teams in his spare time.  He and his wife hosted elegant dinner parties and social events in the mansion until 1913.  On August 8 of that year Nellie Plant, Morton's wife of 26 years, died.  Shortly thereafter the 61 year old Plant met the 31 year old Mae Caldwell Manwaring -- wife of Selden B. Manwaring.

In May of 1914, not ten months after the death of his wife, Plant announced his engagement to Mae who had obtained a divorce the previous month.  A month later the couple was married at Plant's immense Groton, Connecticut estate.  Mae was, reportedly, pleased with her wedding gift of $8 million.

By 1917, with the country having entered World War I, Morton and Mae (she preferred to be called Maisie) became concerned about the stores and hotels that were inching closer and closer.  Despite the restrictions in his contract with Vanderbilt, Plant began building a French Renaissance palace at 5th Avenue and 86th Street, designed by Guy Lowell. 

In the meantime Maisie Plant was window shopping.  Pierre Cartier had opened a New York branch of his Paris jewlery store, and there she fell in love with a double-stranded Oriental pearl necklace with a $1 million price tag (equal to about $16 million today).

Before the advent of cultured pearls, flawless pearls were more valuable than diamonds.  In Edwardian society a woman's social status was often measured by the length of her pearl ropes.  Plant called on the jeweler and, in agreement with Vanderbilt, sold his Italian palazzo to Cartier for $100 and the necklace.

The New York Times reported "Morton F. Plant, who is building his new city residence on upper Fifth Avenue...has sold his former home.  It is one of the finest and newest of the expensive residences in what was, up to a few years ago, the choice Fifth Avenue residential locality, being opposite the Vanderbilt twin houses...Mr. Plant purchased his uptown plot at Eighty-sixth Street last year, as he felt that the business invasion had made too great an inroad in the old district below Fifth-ninth Street..."

Cartier contracted William Welles Bosworth to convert the mansion as his new store.  Bosworth's sympathetic transformation created a Fifth Avenue entrance, and show windows were seamlessly integrated into the facade.  Much of the interior detailing and paneling, including the entire second floor music room with its magnificent coffered ceiling were preserved.

A year later, Morton Plant died.  In 1919 Maisie married Colonel William Hayward.  She married again in 1954, this time to the wealthy John E. Rovensky.  Mae Caldwell Manwaring Plant Hayward Rovensky died in 1956 in the 86th Street mansion Morton Plant had built for her.  Her double strand of Cartier pearls, once valued at over $1 million, was auctioned off for $150,000.

In 1970 the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Plant Mansion a landmark.




Thursday, May 27, 2010

Balto - The Dog, The Statue and the Disgrace


Visitors to Central Park are pleasantly surprised when they stumble across the bronze statue of a panting malamute, perched alertly on the stone outcropping on the main path near the Children's Zoo.  A favorite of children, the statue's dark patina of 105 years has been worn to a golden bronze along his back and head from the endless petting of little hands.

The unveiling of the statue in 1925 was the pinnacle of Balto's life ... things went downhill from there.

The story of how Balto earned his statue is as melodramatic as the silent films playing in theatres that winter of 1925.  In those days, Nome, Alaska was icebound and cut off from the rest of the world for seven months of the year; vicious winds prohibited air travel and the rail system terminated 674 miles away at the closest point.  Even today there is no road into or out of the town.

Nome, with a population of about 1400, had one physician, Dr. Curtis Welch, whose wife Lula served as his nurse.  When the last shipment of medical supplies arrived in 1924, Welch noticed that his requested diphtheria antitoxin was missing.  Having never seen a single case of diptheria in his eighteen years on the peninsula, he was not overly concerned.

And then tragedy struck.  An Eskimo boy died in December 1924 from what appeared to be tonsilitis.  Then two more children.  Then another became sick.  Welch finally recognized the symptoms.  There was a diphteria epidemic spreading in the town.

The doctor urgently telegramed the US Public Health Service in Washington for aid.  Within days every newspaper in the country was following the crisis in Nome.  The nearest antitoxin was in Anchorage, about 1000 miles away, with no apparent means of getting to it.

With no road, no railway and no airplanes, the only way to get the antitoxins to Nome was a relay of dog sleds.  Twenty men and 150 dogs were organized to run day and night without stopping.  As one sled finished its leg of the trip, another would pull up beside and the medicine transferred so not a moment was lost -- like relay runners passing a baton.

The conditions were beyond brutal.  Winds gusted to 70 mph and temperatures were -50 degrees Farenheit.  Blizzard conditions bulleted the men's faces with ice pellets, their fingers froze, and vision was reduced to mere inches.  The dogs could cover the dangerous landscape at only about six miles per hour.

In the lower 48 states, families clustered around their living room radios for news of the rescue attempt.  Three hundred citizens of Nome were now exposed to the disease.

Gunnar Kaasen had the next-to-last leg with Balto as the lead dog.  By now the blizzard was at its peak with white-out conditions.  It was Balto's sense of smell that kept them on the trecherous trail.  When they reached Point Safety where they were to hand off the medicine, the next man was asleep on his sled.  Rather than lose time, Kaasen did not slow down.  His decision doubled the distance his dogs had to run.

As Kaasen later told reporters "I couldn't see the trail. Many times I couldn't even see my dogs, so blinding was the gale. I gave Balto, my lead dog, his head and trusted him. He never once faltered. It was Balto who led the way. The credit is his."

On Monday February 2, Kaasen pulled into Nome with the antitoxin.  The epidemic came to an end.  Only five people succumbed to the disease and the entire country celebrated.  Kaasen and Balto were heroes.

In New York City Frederick G. R. Roth, reknowned for his animal sculptures, was commissioned to sculpt the statue of Balto for Central Park.  Balto was present for the unveiling on December 16, 1925 as was Gunnar Kaasen.  The plaque below the statue reads:

Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs
that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice,
across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from
Nenama to the relief of sticken Nome in the Winter of 1925
Endurance * Fidelity * Intelligence


Then things took a slide for Balto.

He had been neutered early in his life so there was no chance for a cushy retirement as a stud dog.  Instead he and the six other dogs from his team were bought by the owner of a vaudeville troupe who toured them around the country.  When public interest diminished, they were handed off as a side-show exhibit in Los Angeles.

It seemed things would improve when George Kimble started a campaign to save the dogs.  A former prize fighter from Cleveland, he found the hero dogs underfed and unhealthy.  Through his efforts money was raised, much of it from school children, to purchase the dogs.  On March 19, 1927 they were given a parade through Cleveland -- right to the Cleveland Zoo, their new home.

The final indignity came when, upon Balto's death in 1933, he was stuffed and put in a glass case at the Cleveland Natural History Museum.  In 1998 Alaska fought Cleveland for the "return" of Balto; however Cleveland never ceded the body; other than for a five-month loan to the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

photo by Luke Scarano
The 1925 dog-sled run is commemorated every year with the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race every March which follows the course of the serum run.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

135 Watts Street - The Fleming Smith Warehouse


Were it not for his eye-catching warehouse on the corner of Watts and Washington Streets, Fleming Smith's name would have disappeared with time.  Little of his life is documented and what remains revolves around his warehouse.

The neighborhood around Watts and Washington had been, in the first half of the 19th Century,a refined residential enclave anchored by St. John's Church and the fashionable St. John's Park.  Two years after the end of the Civil War, however, Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased the park from Trinity Church and built a railroad station on the site.  And there went the neighborhood.

Fine Federal residences were razed for warehouses and factories and the area soon became entirely commercial.  It was here that Fleming Smith chose to erect a warehouse of his own in 1891.  Smith did not want any run of the mill warehouse and contracted the respected architect Stephen Decatur Hatch to design it.

Hatch, who would go on to design important structures like the Princeton Club and New York Life Building, produced anything but "run of the mill."   Instead his neo-Flemish building looks much more like a decorative 1890s school building than a commercial warehouse.  Using granite, sandstone and brick with copper ornamentation, Hatch created a near-whimsical facade.  His grouped windows and large Romanesque arches allowed light to pour into the building.

In the last decade of the century, Flemish Revival was sweeping the city as builders gave a nod to Manhattan's Dutch roots.  Substantial buildings designing in the style, like the West End Collegiate Church, as well lesser town houses and stables dotted the city.

Five stories of yellow brick rise above the rusticated stone first floor, culminating in fanciful copper-lined stepped gables.  Between the great gables, ornamental copper dormers topped by weather vanes project from the facade.  On the west side enormous copper numerals in the gable proclaim the date, 1891, while Fleming Smith's monogram entwines above them.
photo by epicharmus

At the turn of the century Smith's building housed a shoe manufacturer and a wine storehouse.  Throughout the 20th Century it continued its intended purpose, surviving with no alterations being made to the exterior facade and none of the copper ornamentation being stripped off or lost.

In the late 1970s a complete facade restoration was performed by Scott Henson Architects, LLC. and subsequently 135 Watt Street became the first commercial Tribeca building to be converted to residential use.  Today a restaurant is housed in the space where horse-drawn drays once backed in to receive crates of wine.  A two-bedroom apartment on the floors above will cost you between $2.5 and $3.5 million.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Church of the Holy Communion





Perhaps no Manhattan structure has been so influential in architectural, social and ecclesiastical advances as Richard Upjohn's wonderful Church of the Holy Communion on 6th Avenue at 20th Street.

In the first half of the 19th Century the Episcopal Church was still predominant among the Manhattan denominations and parishioners either rented or purchased their pews, a practice that bothered John Rogers.  He envisioned a church where the rich and poor could worship side by side.  After Rogers' death his sister, Mary A. C. Rogers, sought to fulfill his dream -- a "free church."

She turned to her brother-in-law, the Episcopal priest William Augustus Muhlenberg, for guidance.  Muhlenberg was a progressive-minded thinker who immediately took up the cause.  The land was purchased and architect Richard Upjohn was commissioned to design the church while he worked on his plans for the new Trinity Church downtown.

Upjohn produced a quaint, Gothic-revival building in the style of an English country parish church -- the first of its kind in the U.S.  Completed in 1846 and built of irregular brownstone blocks, its assymetrical shape and crennelated bell tower along with the small front yard and side garden were picturesque -- especially with the addition in 1853  and 1854 of the charming Sister's House to the north and the Rectory to the east.  The building sparked an architectural trend throughout the country.

While the neighborhood was essentially undeveloped at the time of the church's dedication, early members included such notable New York names as Vanderbilt, Astor and Gould.  From here, Muhlenberg continued his ground breaking ideas.  According to a December 12, 1885 article in The Churchman, the church was "...the first free church in this country, the first to have daily Morning and Evening Prayer, the first to have Holy Communion weekly, the first to have early Christmas and Easter celebrations, the first to decorate the chancel with flowers on festival days, the first to establish a boy choir, the first in the whole English speaking church to introduce a sisterhood, for its sisterhood antedates those of England."

Photograph NYPL Collection

What The Churchman failed to mention was that Muhlenberg also introduced medical care for the indigent, needlework programs for unemployed women, holiday dinners for the needy, trips to the country for poor boys, and the founding of a charity hospital, St. Luke's Hospital, in the Sister's House.  The sisters were dedicated to nursing and training orphaned girls for domestic service.  In an effort to help educate the poorer of his parishioners, Muhlenberg amassed a huge collection of books which later became the basis of the Mulhlenberg Library on 23rd Street.

Photograph NYPL Collection

In 1883 the church, now surrounded by the grand emporiums that made up The Ladies' Mile, hosted the first convention of black Episcopal clergymen.

By the middle of the 20th Century the neighborhood around The Church of the Holy Communion had changed from opulent department stores to commercial and industrial businesses.  The cast iron emporiums now housed factories and warehouses.  The number of parishioners and the financial situation of the church dwindled.  To head off what he feared could be the destruction of the building, the rector pushed for and was granded landmark status in 1966.  Ten years later the church was abandoned and deconsecrated.

In a move that would probably have pleased Augustus Muhlenberg, the venerable church building was purchased by the Odyssey Insitute and used as a drug rehabilitation center. 

However the Institute sold it in 1983 to Peter Gatien who opened the Limelight disco in the church, beginning a period of depravity including drug trafficking , reported sex rooms in the Sister's House, and a connection with the 1996 murder and dismemberment by Michael Alig of Angel Melendez, a regular drug dealer at the club.  The Limelight was closed down by police that year.

Another club, Avalon, opened in the former church for a short period before the building sat empty and neglected again until Jack Menashe renovated it as a mini-mall.  Menashe's transformation, costing $15 million, opened in early 2010 as the "Limelight Marketplace."

photograph by The New York Times

photo by The New York Times


Richard Upjohn's picturesque masterpiece that sparked a trend in 19th Century church architecture and revolutionized the way the church viewed its social obligations is, sadly, now a bazaar for high-priced perfumes and bed linens; ironically not unlike the retail palaces that crowded around it in the 1880s.














non-credited photographs taken by the author

Monday, May 24, 2010

The 1883 Chelsea Hotel




photograph NYPL Collection
 Had the building George M. Smith erected in 1882 never had a famous resident, it would still be an architecturally important building today.    But Smith's building had more than just a few famous residents and the quality of the Chelsea Hotel's architecture is nearly lost in the glare of its legendary guest list.

Smith commissioned architects Hubert & Pirsson to design a cooperative apartment house on 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues in 1882.  The team was on the cutting edge of apartment house design, coming up with the "mezzanine plan" or split level floor plan, for instance.  They actively encouraged cooperative ownership apartments and were far ahead of other architects in terms of ventilation and amount of sunlight in the units.

Their Eastlake-style, Queen Anne building incorporated the latest in architectural trends and conveniences.  Tier after tier of cast iron fronted balconies with french doors lined the 23rd Street facade, ornamented with a heavy cast sunflower motif.  Windows had geometrically patterned stained glass overlights and an intricate central cast iron staircase wound from the lobby to the twelfth floor.  It was the tallest building in Manhattan.

Built to the buyer's specifications, the apartments contained from one to seven rooms, boasted fireplaces (one cast in bronze), high ceilings and sound-proof walls.  When it opened in 1883 at a cost of $300,000, it sat in the center of the vibrant theatre district.  Across the street was Proctor's Theater where vaudeville played, at the corner of 8th Avenue was The Grand Opera House offering opera and melodramas, while other theatres dotted the thoroughfare all the way to 5th Avenue.

The two top floors were reserved for rental units and the ground floor had commercial space available to bring in extra income for the cooperative.  The plan was that the running expenses would be paid for by the leases, costing the apartment owners nothing.

Problems for the Chelsea began in 1893 when it took a double-hit.  Almost unnoticed at first was the opening of The Empire Theatre on 40th Street, the first real Broadway theatre.  The Empire started the relocation of the theatre district and a major change in the Chelsea's neighborhood.  Later that year came the financial panic that triggered a series of bank failures and sparked a depression lasting until 1897.

The Chelsea survived, but a second financial panic in 1903 was too much and bankrupted the cooperative.  By 1905 it had been purchased and reorganized as The Chelsea Hotel, beginning a new chapter in American popular culture.

The Chelsea opened as a residential hotel and immediately attracted the famous and artistic.  Mark Twain moved in.  Actresses Lily Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt were early residents.  And as the decades passed, the list grew.  Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Wolfe, Dennis Hopper, Ethan Hawke, Jane Fonda and Edith Piaf lived here.


By by 1960s and 70s it was where both the celebrated and the infamous lived.  Arthur C. Clark wrote 2001 - A Space Odyssey here.  Arthur Miller lived at the Chelsea six years and wrote of it, "This hotel does not belong to America. There are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and shame...it's the high spot of the surreal. Cautiously, I lifted my feet to move across bloodstained winos passing out on the sidewalks--and I was happy. I witnessed how a new time, the sixties, stumbled into the Chelsea with young, bloodshot eyes."

There was tragedy at the Chelsea, too.  Dylan Thomas lived in Room 205 and there, after 18 whiskies, fell into a coma from which he never recovered.  In 1978 Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon were living in Room 100.  On October 11 she was found stabbed to death in the bathroom.  Vicious, while under supicion of murder, died of a heroin overdose shortly thereafter. 

Over the years the management would sometimes accept artwork in lieu of back rent from struggling artists, resulting in the somewhat dowdy lobby and the staircase being crammed with paintings.  Visual artists who called the Chelsea home included Willem De Kooning, Robert Mapplethorpe, Diego Rivera, Christo, Jackson Pollack and Larry Rivers.  Award winning painter,etcher and engraver Alphaeus Philemon Cole lived at the Chelsea for 35 years until his death. When he died at 112, he was the world's oldest man.

Musicians Madonna, Patti Smith, Allice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin stayed here as well as actors and directors like Kevin O'Connor, Uma Thurman, Edie Sedgwick and Gaby Hoffman.

The hotel inspired two of Leonard Cohen's songs, "Chelsea Hotel" and "Chelsea Hotel No 2."  He carried on his affair with Janis Joplin here and later said of it "It's one of those hotels that have everything that I love so well about hotels. I love hotels to which, at four a.m., you can bring along a midget, a bear and four ladies, drag them to your room and no one cares about it at all."

And the list of famous residents goes on and on and on.

The Chelsea Hotel is still a residential hotel; although a quarter of the 400 rooms were set aside for temporary quests until August 1, 2011 when the management announced it would initiate a one-year renovation.

While the residents still use the grand cast iron staircase inside it is unavailable to sightseers.  Outside, the facade around the entrance is plastered with bronze plaques proclaiming just a few of the scores of celebrities and artists who have lived here.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Pulitzer Fountain


When Audrey Marie Munson was growing up in tiny Mexico, New York she had no inkling that one day a bronze depiction of her naked derriere would offend the widow of the great Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The seed was planted for Mrs. Vanderbilt's irritation when sculptor Karl Bitter envisioned a grand plaza similar to the Place de Concorde in Paris.  The Grand Army Plaza at the southeast entrance to Central Park, he felt, was just the spot.  In those days of the City Beautiful Movement, the open area between Vanderbilt's immense 5th Avenue mansion and the Sherman Monument, with the new Plaza Hotel creating the western border, cried out for civic beautification.

Bitter lobbied for his plaza for several years.  Then when publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the owner of The New York World, died in 1911 his will set aside $50,000 for the creation of a fountain specifically for that site.  A closed competition was held for the design of the fountain which was, perhaps not surprisingly, won by Karl Bitter along with Thomas Hastings.  Bitter would design the figure while Hasings, of Carrere and Hastings, was responsible for the fountain itself.

But Bitter held out.  $50,000, he complained, was enough for a fountain but not enough for the plaza to showcase it.  The sculptor won out and additional funds were amassed to create his long envisioned plaza.  In order to ensure symmetry, the Sherman Monument would have to be moved 16 feet to the west, where it sits today.

Audry Munson posing in a artist's studio - NYPL Collection
For his figure atop the fountain, Bitter looked to Pomona, the Roman goddess of abundance.  And for his model he chose Audrey Munson.  Audrey was a beautiful young woman who, in the early days of the 20th Century, was not embarassed to take off her clothes.  She posed for at least 15 statues in New York City alone, including "Civic Fame" atop the Municipal Building and the figure of Columbia on top of the Maine Memorial.






For Pomona, Munson would be naked again except for a cloth over one leg as she bends over holding a basket of fruit.

In the meantime, Hastings designed a grand limestone fountain of six basins which spill one into the other, graduating in size from the smallest beneath the figure to the wide pool at street level.  Additional sculptures of large rams heads and cornacopiae around the rim were done by Orazio Piccirilli of the reknowned Bronx-born family of carvers.

Bitter finished his clay model for the Pomona in 1915.  Only days later he was struck and killed by an automobile.  The task of finishing the statue based on Bitter's model passed to his assistant, Karl Gruppe, along with Isidore Konti.

In 1916 everything finally came together:  the grand plaza was completed, the Sherman Monument had been moved, Hastings' magnificent tiered fountain was installed and Karl Bitter's Pomona had been cast and set in place.  Everyone it seemed, was happy.

Everyone except for Mrs. Alice Vanderbilt.

Photograph NYPL Collection

Mrs. Vanderbilt's mansion took up the entire block where Bergdorf-Goodman now stands.  The view from her bedroom looked north towards the Park.  The problem was that now it also had an unobstructed view of Audrey Munson's naked posterior.  As the story goes, in heated defiance Alice Vanderbilt ordered that her bedroom be moved a full city block to the south to protect her gaze from the offending statue.

The fountain has been restored several times, first in 1948.  Then in a much larger undertaking the entire 12-foot central basin was replaced with a granite copy in 1970.  Beginning in 1983, a $3.7 million rehabilitation on the fountain and the plaza in general was started.  The fountain was disassembled and the statue of Pomona was put into storage.  Six years later, with new plumbing and wiring and restored stonework, the fountain was up and running again.  But not for long.

In 1996 the replacement granite basin developed a serious crack.  Once again the fountain was shut down and a new granite copy was installed.  Today, however, the fountain spills its water down Hastings' six tiers as intended in 1916 -- although Bitter's grand plaza has been sorely reduced in grandeur.

photo NYPL Collection
And what about Audrey Munson?  She went on to pose for scores of statues and monuments nationwide by the greatest artists of the day and starred in four silent movies -- naked.  She was the first fully-nude actress on film.  Her career ended when, in 1919, her mother's landlord, Dr. Walter Wilkins, murdered his wife so he would be free to marry Munson.  Although Munson was not accused of wrongdoing the scandal ruined her career.

In 1922 she attempted suicide and in 1931 she was ordered into a psychiatric facility.  There she lived until her death at 105 in 1996.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Back from the Ashes -- Central Synagogue


When the little Congregation Ahawath Chesed decided to move from their Ludlow Street synagogue where they had been since 1846, they set out to impress. 

And impress they did.

Numbering only 150 families, the German Reform congregation chose Henry Fernbach to design their new building.  Fernbach was a Jewish German immigrant who had come to the U.S. in 1855 and would go on to make his mark in two widely divergent architectural venues:  cast iron commercial buildings and Moorish Revival synagogues.

The fashionable 19th Century architectural styles had posed a problem for synagogue designers for decades.  Gothic Revival was heavily used for Christian churches, while Greek Revival smacked of a tradition of pagan worship.  Moorish Revival, however, harkened back to the pre-Inquisition days when Jews enjoyed relative freedom in Spain.

Central Synagogue 1892 -- photo NYPL Collection
On the site at Lexington Avenue and 55th Street, Fernbach built for the tiny congregation a grand synagogue inspired by the Dohany Street Synagogue of Budapest.  Twin octagonal towers rose 122 feet, topped by polychromed and gilded onion domes.  A huge central rose window dominated the Lexington facade while two-story arched stained glass windows lined the sides.

Fernbach, reportedly the first Jewish architect in the U.S., used contrasting horizontal bands of stone, Moorish stone arches and exuberant roofline crenellation for dramatic effect.  When it was completed in 1872 with only a few buildings around it, the synagogue was -- as intended -- impressive.

More so, however, was the spacious interior which could accomodate 1000.  Fernbach's High Victorian interpretation of the Moorish theme blanketed the surfaces with colorful and intricate stenciling.  Deep, vivid colors like crimson and cobalt, burst from the walls.  Gold stars against the deep blue ceiling represented the heavens above the worshippers.

Fire damaged the synagogue in 1886; however the interior was restored using the original 1872 plans; reclaiming the inticate stenciling and colors. 

In 1898 Shaar Hashomayim merged with Ahawath Chesed and in 1915 the name was changed to Central Synagogue.

As the middle of the 20th Century neared, the congregation decided to refurbish the aging building.  In 1949 they engaged Ely Jacques Kahn, who designed several skycrapers and simliar commercial structures.  Not a fan of historic preservation, Kahn's plan instead was a make-over. 

His updating called for, among other things, the painting over of the Victorian stencilwork and replacing the Moorish chandeliers with Art Deco fixtures.  Much of Ferbach's lavish ornamentation was stripped away.  The exterior was, happily, relatively untouched save for the removal of the roofline crenellation.  Years later architect Hugh Hardy would explain Kahn's renovation to The New Yorker as "He was embarrassed by all this decoration—you can see how he simplified it."

fire damge 1998 - photo by Central Synagogue
Kahn's mid-century designs would still be in place were it not for the devastating fire that tore through Central Synagogue in 1998.  Started by a welder's torch, the fire destroyed the roof, which collapsed into the interior.  Because of water damage, 85 percent of the decorated surfaces were destroyed.

To many it appeared that Central Synagogue was lost.

But for the intrepid congregation "lost" was not an option.  Hugh Hardy, who had restored several other New York City landmarks like Radio City Music Hall and The Rainbow Room, took up the challenge.  The stained glass windows were in shards.  Shattered pieces of encaustic tiles littered the ashes.  Sunlight streamed through the void where the ceiling had been.

Molds were made of the chunks of decorative plasterwork before they were discarded.  Drawings were done to document the sequence and placement of the ornamentation.  Enough original glass from the windows was salvaged to restore one full window -- which was dedicated to the firemen who saved the building.  The remaining windows were reproduced using the original designs, photographs and matching glass.

Referring to as much pre-Kahn documentation as could be found, Hardy's plan to bring Central Synagogue back to its Victorian splendor took shape.  When completed, the mid-20th Century constraints were gone.  "What we have done is much more exuberant than what people here are used to, but it is original to the building," Hardy told The New Yorker. "Now the building is as raucous as ever."


Craftsmen, using 19th Century methods, painstakingly revived the interior.  More than 5000 stencils were applied to the walls and ceiling by hand, using 69 colors.  The pews were reproduced in walnut and ash to match the originals and they sit on flooring consisting of 4,000 square feet of multi-colored encaustic and quarry tiles.  Of the 40,000 tiles only 10,000 of the originals could be salvaged.  The remaining tiles were hand-made in England.  While the exquisite ark miraculously survived the fire, it required careful cleaning, reguilding, refinishing, and partial repainting.

Today the stars twinkle on a cobalt sky over the heads of the worshippers at Central Synagogue once again.






interior photographs by Central Synagogue

Thursday, May 20, 2010

392-393 West Street

The sagging little building at 392-393 West Street has one of the most deeply varied and checkered histories in New York.

In 1796 the Newgate State Prison opened along the river in the small, rural village of Greenwich.  It was a grand building, designed by Joseph-Francois Mangin, architect of New York City Hall.  During the day inmates in the great Georgian-style prison were taught to manufacture shoes, spinning wheels, nails and other household goods that could be sold for revenue.  At night they attended classes in Latin, mathmatics and reading.

By 1825, however, the prison was losing money and an inspector noted conditions filthier than any he had ever seen outside of the notorious Washington DC city jail.  A state legislature sent a commission who reported insolence and idleness among the inmates.  A new prison was authorized to be built in Ossining, New York and by 1829 the State abandoned Newgate.




print NYPL Collection

The City planned a market on the site.  Greenwich Market would cover the block created by West Street, Christopher Street, Amos Street (now called West 10th Street) and the new, block-long Weehawken Street.  The market was completed in 1834 and consisted of wooden, open shed constructions with deep overhanging eaves to shelter farm and fish wagons that would back up to the buildings.

Partly because of the more convenient Jefferson Market, the Greenwich Market was never successful.  In 1848 the City closed the market and authorized its demolition.  George Munson jumped at the opportunity and purchased two sections, Nos.392-393 West Street for $1,550.  A boatbuilder by trade, he enclosed the structure and renovated it as a business, adding a second floor with a rear outside staircase and entrance on Weehawken Street. 

Robert Little and his wife Rosanna leased the building from Munson, living on the second floor and running a tavern below that served "stout and malt liquors" to the sailors and working men along the riverfront.  It is the earliest documented saloon business in the area.  Conveniently for the Littles, Nash, Beadleston & Co. had started a brewery in part of the old prison in 1845.

Munson lost 392-393 West Street to foreclosure in 1864, and it was purchased by Edmund Terry, a Brooklyn lawyer.  Terry continued to lease it to the Littles for another three years.  In the years after the Civil War, additional taverns appeared along West Street.  James A. Mulqueen, who operated the tavern from 1883 to 1907 fought the competition by adding a pool table.

The riverfront neighborhood was, at best, seedy.  The New York Police Department described the area around Mulqueen's tavern in 1902.  "It has at night been the resort of outcasts, drunkards, dissolute people, and a dangerous class of depredators and petty highwaymen. ... Protection from these evildoers has been chiefly asked by seafaring people whose craft are moored to the docks along the North River front, and ... by the officers and men of the ships of the White Star, Cunard, Leyland, and Transatlantic Lines, and also by dock watchmen and patrons of the ferry lines."

William (Billy) F. Gillespie took over the lease for the saloon in 1909 until Prohibition closed him down in 1920.  Bouncing back, he opened Billie's Original Clam Broth House which remained highly popular until 1925.  During the same time, the West Village neighborhood changed from "the resort of outcasts, drunkards and depredators" to a highly desireable residential enclave.
nypl collection

Yet the little, block-long Weehawken Street managed to retain its charm.  In 1934 The Villager called it "the almost forgotten thoroughfare" and "still picturesque."

The Terry family sold 392-393 West Street in 1943 to George Hunt, a retired mariner.  After a two-year renovation, Hunt moved in.  He told The Villager in 1945 that he "bought it cheap... but I fixed it all up inside, reinforced it and everything."  From here he sold items needed by the dockworkers and shipworkers such as canvas gloves, work clothes, and tobacco.  He owned the building only until 1946.

As the neighborhood continued to change and the waterfront traffic ceased, 392-393 West Street changed too.  From the 1970s through 1999 it housed gay bars and then a pornographic video store.  Then in 2006 it was purchased for $2.2 million by Jean-Louis Bourgeois, described by The New York Times as "an architectural historian, advocate for environmental rights and 21st-century hipster."

Bourgeois purchased the building with the intention of living upstairs and installing a "museum to water" in the old tavern.  That, to date, has not come to pass.  His building, though, is an rare and amazing surviving example of early 19th Century market shed construction.

It seems that almost daily another luxury high-rise glass-and-steel condominum rises on West Street where once tall masted schooners docked and horse-drawn drays crowded the road.  Yet by some miracle, 392-393 West Street, where Rosanna Little poured stout ale for 19th Century sailors, still stands.

.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Terrorists at 18 West 11th Street

In the late 1960s and early 70s we did not fear terrorists from Iraq or Pakistan or Afghanistan.  Our terrorists came from Indiana and Connecticut and New York.  Variously called anarchists and revolutionist, they sought to attain their scattered goals -- from the end of the Vietnam War, to racial equality, to feminist rights -- by extreme violence and social disruptance.

Such a group of terrorists was the Weatherman who took their name from a line in Bob Dylan's song Subterranean Homesick Blues:  "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."  An outgrowth of the radical SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Weatherman was organized in 1969.  By March of 1970 they had executed a series of bombings across the nation.  And when, that month, five members gathered at 11 West 18th Street in Greenwich Village, the home of member Cathy Wilkerson's parents, the stage was set for disaster.

Wilkerson's parents' home had been built in 1845 as one of four Federal style houses built by Henry Brevoort, Jr. for his children.  While Brevoort, one of New York's richest citizens, lived at 24 5th Avenue in a spectacular Georgian mansion, he chose decidedly less extravagant homes for his children.  Nonetheless, the brick houses were outfitted with up-to-the-minute comforts on a fashionably respectable street.

West 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue was a quiet, peaceful street.  Not only did the well-heeled professional class settle here, so did artistic celebrities seeking calm retreat.  Over the years, mail was delivered to names like Mark Twain, Leonard Bernstein and Thornton Wilder.

photo NYPL Collection
In the 1920s Charles Merrill, co-founder of Merrill-Lynch, owned 18 West 11th.  His son, poet James Merrill was born there on March 3, 1926, almost forty-four years to the day before the Weatherman group would visit.

For over three decades, beginning in 1930, Broadway lyricist and movie executive Howard Dietz would live in the house with a succession of three wives.  When Dietz would throw especially lavish parties, a moving van would be parked outside to hold all the furniture from the parlor floor.  Guests, after all, needed space to dance.

Finally, in 1963 Cathy Wilkerson's father, James P. Wilkerson purchased No. 18 West 11th.  Wilkerson was a successful radio executive who filled the paneled library with a collection of valuable bird sculptures.  The Wilkersons collected antique Hepplewhite furniture and art.  Their 1845 house still retained its Federal detailing including the original mantels.

That would all change.

When James and Audrey Wilkerson left for vacation in St. Kitts in March 1970, Cathy asked if she could use the house.  On March 6, she and four other Weatherman members entered the house to begin assembling a bomb.  Their intended target was a military dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey as a protest against the Vietnam War.  Unfortunately, no one of the group was educated in bomb-making.

photo NY Daily News
Cathy Wilkerson was upstairs with Kathy Boudin when the nail-and-dynamite pipe bomb exploded below, instantly killing their three friends.  The front of the house was blown out and the explosion shook the entire block.  Neighbors, including Dustin Hoffman at No. 16, rushed into the street.  Cathy Wilkerson, naked, and Kathy Boudin, wearing only a pair of jeans, emerged shaken and soot covered from the blazing ruins.  A neighbor, Susan Wagner, took them to her house where they showered and borrowed clothes.  They then said they were going to a pharmacy.  They were never seen again for over a decade.

Amazingly, investigators later found 60 sticks of unexploded dynamite, blasting caps, lead pipes packed with dynamite and even more bundles of dynamite taped together.  Miraculously the explosion and subsequent fire did not ignite this arsenal.  Had it exploded, the entire block would have been taken out.

The lot where the house had stood sat empty behind a fence for eight years.  The property was purchased by respected architect Hugh Hardy, with Steuben Glass executive Francis Mason.  Hardy designed a modern, brash residence to fill the void.  The neighbors and the Landmarks Preservation Commission were less warm to the idea.

In 1978 Hardy sold the lot to David and Norma Langworthy who used Hardy's exterior design -- with changes that were acceptable to the Commission.  The resulting rowhouse melds well into the flow of the block, even mimicking the original stoop, doorway and top-most floor; but fervently showing off its individuality with the abrupt, jutting angled parlor and second floors, and wide picture windows.  Hardy's solution ties the house back to its origins but holds on to its important recent history.

Cathy Wilkerson was arrested in 1980 and convicted of illegal possession of dynamite.  Kathy Boudin was captured a year later after a gunfight with police following a failed Brink's Armored Car robbery.  She pled guilty to felony murder and robbery.


Pass by the wide parlor windows of 18 West 11th Street today and you will see a Paddington Bear staring back at you.  He has stood in the window since the Langworthy's moved in over 30 years ago.  The bear is always there, although his outfits change according to the season or weather.  Only once has he had company.  That day he appeared in a tuxedo with a female bear next to him in a wedding dress.  A physician living on the block pointed the pair out to his girlfriend as they passed.  Then he dropped to one knee and proposed.

She accepted.

non-credited photographs taken by the author