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 Sixth 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 1820's, 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 1840's 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 1860's.  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 Roman 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 1898 novella, The Monster.

A Black and Tan Saloon in Little Africa -- photo by Jacob Reiis, from the collection of the New York Public Library

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.”

A Black and Tan Saloon --photo by Jacob Reiis, from the collection of the New York Public Library

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 1,200 Blacks in the Minetta area and the number of Black churches had grown.  Census records show that in 1900, families like that of Morgan J. Austin, a Black waiter, with his Irish wife Annie and their eight children were living in this dangerous environment.  Their fifteen year old son was working in a laundry to help out.

By 1910, the Annie's mother was 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 immigrants 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 1920's artists began looking towards Greenwich 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 remarked in 1923 that Minetta Street was "As free from noise and as peaceful as though 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.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

No one would remember Little Africa by the 1960's.  No one would recall that Minetta Brook still runs under the pavement somewhere.  In 1960 The Fat Black Pussycat opened in what had earlier been The Commons, a Minetta Street cafĂ©.  Here entertainment hopefuls took the stage hoping to be noticed.  Mama Cass Elliot started here.  So did Tiny Tim, 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 characters like No-Toe Charley, are selling for between $3 and $5 million.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The 1884 Villard Houses

from the collection of the New York Public Library

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.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

While the plans were still being drawn up in 1881, the Real Estate Record and Guide presumed 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.

Portions of the intricate mosaic and parquetry floors.  Images from the collection of the New York Public Library

The project was 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.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

But while the owners did not flee northward from Midtown as commerce engulfed the district, 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.

Despite the lost of much of the interiors, the Villard Houses as part of the hotel project mark an laudable 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 30's 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.

photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

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.  A substantial stone balustrade 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 30's were already beginning to abandon their homes and flee northward.

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 1916, 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 construction on a Italian Renaissance palace at Fifth 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 jewelry 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.
Boswell's alterations can be seen in this Wurtz Bros. photograph.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

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 - Sixth Avenue and 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, Episcopal priest William Augustus Muhlenberg.  The progressive minded cleric took up the cause.   The plot on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 20th Street was acquired and architect Richard Upjohn (who was simultaneously working on plans for the new Trinity Church downtown) was commissioned to design the structure.

Upjohn produced a quaint, Gothic Revival building in the style of an English country parish church.  Completed in 1846 and faced with irregular brownstone blocks, its asymmetrical shape and crenelated bell tower along with the small front yard and side garden were picturesque.  Miller's Stranger's Guide to New York in 1866 called it a "singular-looking building of brown stone, in the form of a cross...The interior is novel and imposing, although divested of ornament."

The guidebook was impressed by its "free church" policy.  "Strangers can enter the church with perfect freedom, and seat themselves in any part of it."

Miller's Stranger's Guide to New York, 1866 (copyright expired)

While the neighborhood was essentially undeveloped at the time of the church's dedication, early supporters 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."

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 founded 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 large collection of books which later became the basis of the Mulhlenberg Library on 23rd Street.

The charming ensemble of buildings included the 1853 rectory, to the east.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1883 the church, now surrounded by the retail 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 former department stores 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 granted landmark status in 1966.  Still, 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 Institute 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," a mini-mall.  The in the fall of 2014 the building was converted to a gym.

Despite its landmark status, one of Manhattan's architectural masterworks endures continued humiliation.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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 architect Thomas Hastings.  Bitter would design the figure while Hastings, of Carrere & 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 embarrassed 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 tiered basins which spill one into the other.  Additional sculptures of large rams heads and cornucopias 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.

The Vanderbilt mansion sits imperiously behind the new fountain.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library

Mrs. Vanderbilt's mansion engulfed up the entire block front 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 placed in 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's six tiers as intended in 1916 -- although Bitter's grand plaza has been sorely reduced in grandeur.

The fountain plaza in the early 1920s was a much lovelier spot than today.  photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
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.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

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.
from the collection of the New York Public Library

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.

photographs by the author

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Terrorists at 18 West 11th Street

In the late 1960s and early 70s we did not fear extremist terrorists from the Middle East.  Our terrorists came from Indiana and Connecticut and New York.  Variously called anarchists and revolutionist, they sought to attain their scattered goals--from ending the Vietnam conflict, to racial equality, to feminist rights--by extreme violence and social disruptions.

One such a group was the Weatherman, which took its 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, its members 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.

The Wilkersons' was in 1845 as one of seven Greek Revival style houses built by Henry Brevoort, Jr., five of which were gifts to his daughters.  While Brevoort, one of New York's richest citizens, lived at 24 5th Avenue in a spectacular Greek Revival mansion, he built less extravagant homes for his children.  Nonetheless, the brick houses on the fashionable block were outfitted with up-to-the-minute comforts.

West 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was a quiet, peaceful block.  Not only did the well-heeled professional class settle here, so did artistic celebrities seeking a calm retreat in the early 20th century.  Over the years, mail was delivered to names like Mark Twain, Leonard Bernstein and Thornton Wilder.

When this photograph was taken, the Greek Revival doorway had been replaced with a neo-Federal entrance.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

In the 1920s Charles Merrill, a 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 chaos would erupt at the address.

For over three decades, beginning in 1930, Broadway lyricist and movie executive Howard Dietz lived in the house with a succession of three wives.  Reportedly, when Dietz threw 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 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 interior of their 1845 house still retained original detailing, like the marble mantles.  But 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 basement 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 among 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 detonated below, instantly killing their three friends.  The front of the house was blown out and the explosion shook the entire block.  Neighbors, including actor 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 and 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.  Somehow the explosion and subsequent fire did not ignite the arsenal.  Had it exploded, the entire block would have been taken out, according to officials.

The empty lot sat behind a fence for eight years.  The property was purchased by respected architect Hugh Hardy with Steuben Glass executive Francis Mason.  Hardy designed a starkly modern residence to fill the void.  The neighbors and the Landmarks Preservation Commission were tepid at best about the design.

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 pleaded guilty to felony murder and robbery.

Pass by the wide parlor level 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