Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Long-Forgotten "Campbell Apartment" - Grand Central Terminal

John Williams Campbell was, as his wife once said, “a showman.”  He liked things big and splashy.  Like his office.

Born in Brooklyn, Campbell never attended college.  Instead, in 1898 at the age of 18, he entered his father’s firm, the Credit Clearing House.  Little by little he worked his way up until by the 1920s he was president of the company and was appointed to the board of the New York Central Railroad.

Through the railroad appointment, he rubbed elbows with William K. Vanderbilt II whose office was in Grand Central Terminal.  Most likely through this friendship Campbell first saw the vacant office space at the southwest corner of the terminal.

The immense office, then the largest ground floor space in the city, was 1800 square feet -- 60 feet long by 30 feet wide -- its walls rising 25 feet to the ceiling.  It was the sort of office that would impress.

Campbell signed the lease in 1923 and commissioned Augustus N. Allen to transform it.  When Allen was done, Campbell had a Florentine palazzo fit for a doge.  A mixture of complimentary styles – Romanesque, Renaissance and medieval – the space made the intended impact.

Anchoring one end was a huge stone baronial fireplace (which hid a steel safe).  Leaded glass windows admitted light and the wooden ceiling beams were hand painted in brilliant colors.  There was a mahogany musician’s gallery with carved quatrefoil designs, a pipe organ, a baby grand piano, 19th Century Italian furniture (pretending to be 13th Century), and Campbell’s overpowering desk.

More impressive than the $1 million art collection lining the walls was the custom woven Persian rug that covered the entire area.  The carpet cost Campbell $300,000 in 1924 – an amount that would translate to between $3 and $4 million today.

Along with the large bathroom there was a kitchen.  From here Campbell’s butler, Stackhouse, prepared lunch and saw to his boss’s needs.  Because Campbell despised wrinkled trousers, he removed his upon entering the office, hung them, and worked behind his huge desk pantless.

After working hours, Campbell would often invite up to 60 guests for private recitals by renowned musicians.   John Campbell kept his office until his death in 1957.

Things went downhill from there.

The railway took over the space, initially for a signalman’s office.  Later the Metro-North Commuter Railroad police used it to store their equipment, stowing guns in Campbell’s curio cabinet.  The Persian carpet disappeared, the furniture was taken away, and little-by-little the magnificent office lost its magnificence.

A dropped ceiling was installed below air conditioning ducts and industrial fluorescent lighting fixtures were hung.  The railroad police set up a small jail at one side.  Through it all, the main elements remained – the grand fireplace, the painted beams beneath the fake ceiling, and the leaded windows hiding behind plywood boards.

In 1994 a $100 million restoration of the Terminal was initiated and the doors to John Campbell’s former office were finally opened by someone who was not merely looking for storage space.

A restoration of the old office began in 1999. $1.5 million later, the timbered ceiling was restored, the windows were uncovered and the sumptuous space gleamed again.  Renovated into a posh bar called The Campbell Apartments, its integrity was sympathetically preserved.

In 2007 bar owner Mark Grossich decided to spruce up the well-used space and commissioned London-based interior designer Nina Campbell to redesign it.  Grossich spent $350,000 to re-do the color scheme, replace the furniture and carpeting.  The entire project was completed overnight, precluding the need to close the bar for even one day.

John William Campbell’s former lavish office is now an equally lavish hide-away for New Yorkers to relax -- a sumptuous reminder of Jazz Era excess.

Friday, July 30, 2010

"Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies" -- McSorley's Old Ale House

“Somewhere below Fourteenth Street is a tavern of individuality. I won’t locate it any more definitely, because the circle of congenial souls who frequent it would never forgive me. It would be spoiled for them if the crowds started going there.”

And that is how, in 1913, a patron of McSorley’s Old Ale House, began his description of the place to a New York Times writer.

The “tavern of individuality” was opened in 1854 by John McSorley, an Irish immigrant. Located at 15 East 7th Street, it echoed back to the Irish pubs McSorley had known back home. Known then as The Old House at Home, it served ale. Only ale. And it served that ale only to men.

In the 19th Century respectable ale houses, saloons and porter houses were not open to women. Those drinking establishments that had a dining room, like Pete’s Tavern on East 18th Street, provided a separate street door so the reputation of ladies would not be sullied by passing through the bar. Women who did take a drink at a saloon had no reputation to sully.

McSorley's was not fancy, but it was a comfortable sort of place where regulars felt at home. The patron speaking to The Times described “… two low rooms, lighted by an occasional gas jet. The tables are of seasoned wood that you couldn’t tell from mahogany, and the seats are comfortable armchairs.

“The ceiling is the most characteristic feature.  It is blacked with the tobacco smoke of half a century.  It has never been scrubbed off, to the knowledge of the oldest patron, and mine host would be grieved beyond measure should any vandal disturb the cinders than hang in flakes.

“The walls are covered with objects of interest, all having historical significance, from the point of view of the proprietor and his friends.”

By 1888 McSorley’s business was successful enough that he purchased the building, a non-descript brick vernacular tenement building, where he and his family lived on the second floor.

In an attempt to diversify, John McSorley experimented with selling hard liquor in 1905. The patrons, however, did not respond favorably. “Unless you are a barbarian, you want ale, the famous ale that cannot be obtained elsewhere,” said one regular.  In 1906 McSorley went back to selling his two ales – one dark, one light.

According to the McSorley legend, the signboard outside was destroyed in a storm in 1908, whereupon John McSorley replaced it with one reading “McSorley’s Old Time Ale House.”  Over time the word “Time” was dropped.

Artist John Sloan was the first “celebrity” to make his mark on McSorley’s.  Beginning in 1912 he sketched and painted the tavern and his exhibitions made it a destination spot. By now Bill McSorley was running the place -- John McSorley died in 1910. He kept his father’s tradition of gathering all the patrons around the bar at closing time each night and buying one final round.

John Sloan sketch 1913

Because of the many politicians who patronized his ale house, Bill McSorley paid little mind to Prohibition.  He tagged his ale, “near beer.” But it was ale.

It was during Prohibition that e. e. cummings added to the bar’s notoriety by penning “i was sitting in mcsorley’s," his 1925 poem that begins “i was sitting in mcsorley’s. outside it was new york and beautifully snowing. inside snug and evil.”

Three years after the repeal of Prohibition, New York police officer Daniel O’Connell bought the bar, becoming the first owner outside of the McSorley family.  O’Connell retired to run the bar; but died only two years later, leaving the business to his daughter, Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan.

Dorothy Kirwan, however, had made a solemn vow to her father: she would never set foot inside McSorley’s men-only ale house. She turned over management to her husband, Harry.

New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell walked into the bar one day and, so taken by it, began writing a series of articles that were eventually collected and published as McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.  That same year, in 1943, Life Magazine published a feature photographic article based on the book.  McSorley’s Old Ale House was suddenly famous nationally.  It  even prompted cartoonist H. G. Peter to pen a depiction of Wonder Woman ordering an ale at McSorley’s and being refused…briefly.

Mitchell described McSorley’s much as the patron in 1913 had.  “To the left is a row of armchairs with their stiff backs against the wainscoting.  The chairs are rickety; when a fat man is sitting in one, it squeaks like new shoes every time he takes a breath.  The customers believe in sitting down; if there are vacant chairs, no one ever stands at the bar. Down the middle of the room is a row of battered tables.  Their tops are always sticky with spilled ale. In the centre of the room stands the belly stove, which has an isinglass door and is exactly like the stoves in Elevated stations.”

When Harry Kirwin’s car broke down while visiting Ireland in 1964, he was given a ride by a local.  In gratitude, Kirwin told the good Samaritan that if he ever came to New York, he would have a job.  That year Matthew Maher took him up on the offer and began working as a waiter and bartender at the bar whose century-old motto was still “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies.”

The motto was put to the test when the Women’s Liberation Movement swept the city in the 1960s.  In 1969 attorneys for the National Organization for Women, Faith Seidenberg and Karen DeCrow, sued for sexual discrimination.  Tried in District Court, the women won and McSorley’s was ordered to admit women.

Kirwin briefly entertained the idea of making the bar a private club, circumventing the law; however he relented.  When her son, Danny, asked Dorothy Kirwin to be the first woman served, she refused.  She had promised her father she would never enter the bar.

The problem of restrooms became an issue.  A women’s restroom necessarily had to be opened on the second floor of the building.  When the inevitable night arrived and National Organization of Women vice president Lucy Komisar showed up at McSorley’s, the manager demanded proof of age.

Komisar produced her driver’s license.  Not good enough.  She was told only a birth certificate was considered sufficient proof.  The ploy was merely a delay and, to much heckling and hooting, women finally entered McSorley’s Old Ale House in 1970.

World War II turkey wishbones on the light fixture

Matthew Maher, Harry Kirwin’s good Samaritan from Ireland, purchased the bar in 1977.  None of the “objects of interest” that were on the walls in John McSorley’s time have been removed, although many more have been added, and the sawdust is still on the floor.  McSorley’s still serves only ale – dark or light.  Dusty turkey wishbones from World War II hang on a light fixture waiting for the soldiers who put them there to return. If you want to feel the strong grip of a bartender on your wrist, just try to touch one.

And although the place is a little more crowded than it was in 1913, the old regular’s description could have been written today, “But, when all is said and done, it’s the people who patronize a place of that kind that give it any local color it may have…But the average crowd that gets together every evening is composed of young writers, artists, newspaper reporters. They all intend to be famous some day. It’s pleasant for an unattached time-killer like myself to know of such a place. I go there when the white lights of Broadway begin to pall, as they do at times.”

historic photographs from the NYPL Collection

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The 1851 Central Park Arsenal

Troops march off to the Civil War in 1863.  Valentine's Manual of New York City, 1863 (copyright expired)

In 1846 the State of New York authorized the construction of a new munitions depot for New York City’s National Guard.  A site was chosen in the countryside far to the north where it was felt that troops could be easily deployed to either shoreline or south to the city.  Architect Martin E. Thompson designed the structure, a crenellated fortress with half-octagonal towers on either corners.

Construction began in 1847 and was completed four years later.  Based on a medieval gatehouse it was built of grey English bond brick.  The New York Times later described:

…the second floor was reached by iron stairs built on the outside. On the balcony at which the two stairways met was the coat-of-arms of the State of New York in wrought iron and the windows on either side were made narrow and thin like those of a jail. Why New York State built its arsenal of nothing more substantial than brick with its access to it by stairways on the outside where a single cannon shot would destroy them and cut off all access to or egress from the building is one of the great mysteries of New York.

State Controller Millard Fillmore–later to become the 13th President of the United States–oversaw the funding of the $30,000 project.

The new Arsenal, however, sat disruptively within the huge plot that New York City was planning to turn into Central Park.  Two years after the building's completion in 1851, the City began a three-year appropriation of the land it needed.  In 1857 it purchased the Armory from the State for $275,000, emptied it of the munitions and arms, and established the administrative functions of the planned park within it.

As Calvert Vaux’s and Jacob Mould’s fanciful and colorful buildings and terraces took shape on paper, many felt that the medieval and militaristic-looking Armory did not fit in.  In 1859 George Templeton Strong, never one to hold back his opinion, called it the "hideous State Arsenal Building," and (hinting at civic-minded arson) hoped "this eyesore” would “soon be destroyed by accidental fire."

Two years before Strong was voicing his disgust, the 11th Precinct Police Station House had already been established in the Armory.  And in 1859 the police began sharing its space with the new Central Park “Menagerie.”  Cages were erected outside as well as in the basement and exotic animals were donated by philanthropists like August Belmont and showman P. T. Barnum.

A well-dressed couple views eagles in an outdoor exhibition.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

James D. McCabe Jr. wrote:

On the east side of the Park…is an old building which somewhat resembles the Cadet barracks at West Point.  In the lower stories and in several buildings around it is a fine collection of animals, birds, and reptiles, constituting the Menagerie of the Park.  In the winter the collection is greatly enlarged by numerous animals and birds which are sent here for safe keeping by traveling shows which go into quarters in New York during the cold season.  This is a favorite resort with visitors, especially with children, and is always crowded.

The animals and the police were further crowded when, at the outbreak of the Civil War, the Arsenal was pressed into military service again.  The militia was housed in improvised barracks while awaiting deployment to the front.  The grassy area in front of the building became “the parade ground of the scores of regiments passing through the city,” and returning soldiers were quartered here before heading home.

Immediately after the war, the building found yet more new uses.  In 1869, in addition to the menagerie, it housed a new museum which would eventually become the American Museum of Natural History.  Here esteemed British paleontologist B. Waterhouse Hawkins labored, reconstructing the skeletons of dinosaurs in a specially constructed workroom.  A Gallery of Art was established on the first floor that same year and the Municipal Weather Bureau’s instruments were installed on the roof.  The Arsenal was bustling with activity.

In 1870 Jacob Wrey Mould was brought in to redesign the interiors and a year later, faced with numerous complaints about the stench and “great insecurity and danger,” the beloved menagerie was moved out.

Always a point of visual controversy the Arsenal was threatened again in 1912 when Henry Clay Frick proposed to dismantle the old 1877 Lenox Library, now vacant with the opening of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, and re-erect it on the site of the Arsenal.  Frick’s gift was turned down, an act Mayor William J. Gaynor viewed as an insult to Frick and announced that he was “determined” to demolish the Arsenal, calling it “unsanitary and unfit.”  The New York Times chimed in, siding with the Mayor and labeling it “an eyesore, fetid with the smell of the stables and the nearby menagerie,” and saying, “the old structure was never a thing of beauty, even in its palmiest days.”

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Although the building survived the threat, the Parks Department offices left the Arsenal in 1914, moving to the new Municipal Building downtown. The building sat neglected and essentially vacant, other than the weather instruments on the roof.  In 1916 the Department considered razing the building, but, instead, it sat for nearly a decade decaying.

In 1922, The New York Times, which had once so vigorously condemned the Armory, lamented “New York does not destroy its old monuments, it ignores them.  Such has been the fate of one of the oldest structures devoted to public uses in the territory north of Fifty-ninth Street–the Armory in Central Park."  The article continued:

...the first State arsenal erected to safeguard the greatest port in the world and the greatest city in America stands facing palatial and opulent upper Fifth Avenue, dilapidated and deserted, with broken windows, cracked lintels, a rickety iron staircase, uneven board floors and more holes in the roof than there are spots on the skin of the leopard in a cage near by…while 'The Arsenal!' is a sinister monument to the neglect of those charged with its maintenance and preservation.

A contrite city appropriated $75,000 to restore the Arsenal, converting much of the interior space for Parks Department offices.  New turrets and a clock were constructed, and basement storage areas were added.  A secret passage under the building was discovered which was possibly intended for the covert movement of munitions.

photo by Andrew Russeth

A decade later Commissioner Robert Moses supervised yet another complete conversion of the structure installing his office and command center here.  Sandblasting removed decades of paint from the brick and the military-themed details–the entrance door’s cannon balls and drums, and the cast iron rifle stair balusters–were added.  WPA artist Allen Saalburg replaced Jacob Wrey Mould's interior ornamentation with with historically-themed murals.

The often-maligned Armory was declared a New York City Landmark in 1967.  In 2008 the department completed a $5 million structural restoration focused, mainly, on water leaks.

Since the early 1980s, much of the interior of the Arsenal has been devoted to gallery and space for public forums.  Fine art and photography shows are exhibited here throughout the year with preference going to those highlighting the environment, urban issues and parks history.

photo via New York Parks Department

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The 1854 Astor Library

Photo NYPL Collection

When John Jacob Astor died in 1848, he was the wealthiest man in America. In his will he left the astonishing amount of $400,000 for the establishment of a public library. A year later the Astor Library was opened and in 1854 its permanent building was erected by his son William Backhouse Astor.

Astor’s will had been explicit about the location of the library. It was to sit on Lafayette Place, directly across the street from the elegant LaGrange Terrace in the most fashionable residential section of New York. Here Astor's son, William Backhouse Astor, commissioned German-born architect Alexander Saeltzer to design the new building. Saeltzer used the style prevalent in Germany for civic buildings at the time, the Rundbogenstil style; sometimes called German Neo-Romanesque. The first floor of rusticated brownstone formed a solid base for the two red brick stories above, accentuated with brownstone trim and graceful arched windows.
Original 1857 Library

Four years later, Astor brought in Griffith Thomas to add a northern extension (what is today the center portion) and in 1881, he commissioned Thomas Stent to enlarge it further to the north. Both architects so seamlessly matched the original plan that the additions are undetectable.

“The exterior is graceful, the interior is as bright as a house of glass. The entrance is through a Pompeian vestibule, bordered with pedestals of colored marble, on which are busts in white marble, sculptured by a Florentine artist of the great and wise men of ancient Greece and Rome,” said The New York Times.

The remarkable library became a destination spot for both foreign and domestic visitors. It was closed for a private tour for the Prince of Wales.  Don Pedro of Brazil visited as well as four presidents, Van Buren, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan. On the eve of his inauguration as Vice President, Chester A. Arthur came “in order to familiarize himself with the details of previous inaugural ceremonies, being inspired by a gentlemen’s instinctive desire to act well his part,” according to the New York Times. General Winfield Scott, Horace Greeley, Thackeray and Louisa May Alcott all read here.
NYPL Collection

In 1892 the library boasted 245,329 volumes and served 53,459 visitors in the reading room. In March of 1895 The Times referred to the library as “a working library for serious persons. It has no circulating department. The bulk of its 50,000 readers are reference seekers and its books are, as a rule, works of general reference, technical and linguistic.”

Like the neighborhood, that was all about to change. In 1898 the consolidation of the Astor and Lennox libraries was planned, which would result in the grand Beaux Arts Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. On September 15 of that year The Times wrote “When the Astor Library first opened its doors Lafayette Place was a street of very beautiful residences. Now, replacing the stanch masonry of the old mansions, there are warehouses of skeleton steel wrapped about with walls of brick. The books find themselves to-day in the heart of the clothing trade, and only the Cooper Union and Grace Church remain to keep the library company overnight, when the grandsons and granddaughters of its former neighbors are dancing miles away up town.”

On April 15, 1911 the Astor Library closed its doors for good. For weeks workers carefully packed the 900,000 books. “For more than a half a century,” noted The Times, “it has been the resort of thousands who sought the stored-up learning of the past. Its career is ended.” A sloping runway was erected inside from the second floor to the main entrance down which crates of books would “be shot for loading onto wagons.”

Books being "shot" down the ramp from 2nd Floor -- 1911

The building was put up for sale that year, which caused a Times writer to become nostalgic. “The sale of the old building, which will probably be replaced by a loft, will remove one more landmark from Lafayette Place, or Lafayette Street, as it is called to-day. Only two years ago the block of houses called LaGrange Terrace or Colonnade Row, opposite the Astor Library, began to disappear, and only a few of them now remain.”  The loft he anticipated, however, was never to come.

The building was not sold until January 12, 1920 when the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society bought it for $325,000 as its headquarters and receiving station, dormitory, and synagogue for arriving Jewish immigrants. A year later, on June 6, 1921, the renovations were complete and dedication ceremonies were held. 5,000 men and women crowded around the old library and 800 managed to get into the auditorium for the event. President Harding sent a congratulatory telegraph.

In order to create the necessary accomodations, the Society’s architect, Benjamin Levitan, installed floors across the former double-height central spaces and demolished the ornate iron and wood bookshelves. Nevertheless, many of the irreplaceable Victorian elements were preserved.

The Society owned the building until 1965 by which time it was neglected and unmaintained. Sold to a developer, it was slated for demolition. The Landmarks Preservation Commission, however, had other plans. In its first major successful rescue, it arranged the $560,000 sale of the historic property to the New York Shakespeare Festival, headed by producer Joseph Papp. Saved at the eleventh-hour, architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable termed it “the miracle on Lafayette Street.”

Papp commissioned architect Giorgio Cavaglieri to convert the structure into the Public Theatre. Cavaglieri had been recycling historic buildings since 1955 and had recently worked on the Jefferson Market Courthouse in Greenwich Village. The architect converted the two-tier sky lit atrium – the former main reading room – into a 300-seat auditorium. The entrance and lobby were preserved with its original colonnade. The Theatre, which focuses on showcasing new performers and playwrights, debuted in 1967 with the world-premiere of the musical Hair.

Photo Public Theatre

By 2002 $12 million had been spent on refurbishing and renovating the space – creating a mezzanine level for additional dressing rooms, reconstruction of the lower, old north hall, level, and further outfitting the seven theatres housed there.

In 2010 a $35 million renovation was planned, headed by Polshek Partnership Architects, to expand and refurbish the lobby, add an exterior entrance staircase and a glass covered canopy, completely restore the façade, incorporate of energy-efficient technologies and improve interior visibility.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Mayor James Walker House - 6 St. Luke's Place

St. Luke’s Place is an anomaly among Manhattan streets, even in quirky Greenwich Village. One-block long, it gently curves from 7th Avenue, where it is named Leroy Street, to Hudson Street, where somewhere along the way it has mysteriously become St. Luke’s Place.

Beginning in 1851, 15 contiguous, grand homes were erected here. Completed in 1854, they are nearly identical. The unusually wide Italianate, or Renaissance Revival, brick-and-brownstone homes with opulent parlors, ornate plaster ceiling medallions and surrounds, and costly materials such as Italian marble and Honduras mahogany were designed for the well-to-do upper-middle class. Many boasted “triple-parlors,” with three rooms per floor.

The site chosen for these handsome residences was strange – directly across from the Old St. John’s Burying Ground, affording the high-toned residents a macabre parlor view of tombstones. Because the cemetery would preclude the building of homes across St. Luke’s Place, the houses were numbered sequentially in yet another departure from the norm.

Here, at No. 6, little Jimmy Walker grew up. After attending the nearby Catholic Xavier High School, James John Walker worked as a songwriter on Tin Pan Alley, penning such then-favorites as “Will you love me in December (as You Do in May)?” and “There’s Music in the Rustle of a Skirt.” The sentiment of the latter lyrics would prove to be more in keeping with his personality than the former.

Walker entered politics, his father being well-connected with the governor of New York, Al Smith. He became a State Assemblyman in 1910 and then a Senator in 1914. Smith took a shine to Walker, who impressed everyone with the dashing appearance that earned him the nickname “Beau James.”

Mayor James Walker -- photo NYPL Collection
In his The Power Broker, author Robert Caro describes Walker as wearing a "Pinch-waisted, one-button suit, slenderest of cravats, a shirt from a collection of hundreds, pearl-gray spats buttoned around silk-hosed ankles, toes of the toothpick shoes peeking out from the spats polished to a gleam. Pixie smile, the 'vivacity of a song and dance man,' a charm that made him arrive in the Senate Chamber like a glad breeze' The Prince Charming of Politics.....slicing through the ponderous arguments of the ponderous men who sat around him with a wit that flashed like a rapier.”

Although Jimmy Walker had earned himself the reputation of a philander and a boozer, Smith encouraged Walker to run for Mayor in 1925 – admonishing him to change his ways. Walker agreed. Except he didn’t change his ways.

photo NYPL Collection
Walker won the election and immediately decided his home on St. Luke’s Place, now the mayoral residence, needed a $25,000 make-over. In November 1925 he moved into the Hotel Commodore with his wife while workmen soundproofed his conference room with simulated-wood cement walls and made other revisions. Two lampposts were installed at street level which the New York Times noted were customary since Dutch times.

Six months later the renovation was complete. The mayor’s wife and mother-in-law had a special celebratory dinner prepared. The mayor failed to show up. When he attempted to call home he had forgotten the new, unlisted number and no operator would reveal it.

Finally at 3:00 am, Jimmy Walker stumbled home. The police officer stationed at the front door, not recognizing him and unable to believe that this “disreputable looking man” was indeed the mayor, refused to allow him in.

The following day Walker said to his wife “How the hell does a mayor get into his own home?”

“You are very well protected,” she answered.

Among Walker’s neighbors on St. Luke’s Place at the time were Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Marianne Moore. As the Jazz Age roared on in New York City, Jimmy Walker roared with it. He admired chorus girls, perhaps a little too much, haunted speak-easys, and never left his bedroom at No. 6 St. Luke’s Place before noon. Here he would look at the photographs in magazines and newspapers for hours (he disliked reading the articles), before descending the stairs for breakfast.

Rather than store his many hats, he hung them in the entrance hall, advising his butler to gesture to them and explain that the mayor was involved in a meeting should any boring visitors arrive.

Things turned sour for the mayor when the Great Depression hit. None too fond of showing up at City Hall, he was definitely not fond of the crick the Depression was causing in his fun. As the Depression worsened, Walker shocked the public when he callously advised them to look on the bright side by attending cheery movies.

New York Cardinal Hayes denounced the mayor’s philandering and drinking and Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt launched an investigation of corruption in Walker’s administration. It did not take long to find it.

Facing pressure from Roosevelt, Walker resigned office on September 1, 1932 and fled to Europe with his girlfriend, Zeigfeld showgirl Betty Compton, before charges could be filed. There he married her after obtaining a divorce from his wife. The pair was divorced six years later.

In the meantime, No. 6 St. Luke’s Place sat empty. In 1934 it was seized and sold for nonpayment of taxes to Eric Coupey, an importer and broker in essential oils.

Throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st, little has changed in the outward appearance of the fifteen St. Luke’s Place homes. At No. 6, the pedimented windows, the arched doorway with its heavy, scrolled brackets and even the mayoral lamps survive.

In 1995 No. 12 St. Luke’s Place sold for $2 million, only to be sold five years later for $12.995 million. In 2007 Nat Rothschild gutted No. 8 and commissioned David Chipperfield to design entirely new interiors. The block where Anderson, Dreiser and Moore lived now boasts residents with names like Linda Ellerbee and Robert DeNiro.

The cemetery across the street is now a playground named for the boozing, philandering and ever-sensational James J. Walker.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Murder, Degraded Women, and a Grocery -- 279 Water Street

Photo by official-ly cool

Comfortable brick homes lined Water Street in the last years of the 18th Century.  Ships’ captains and importers built their residences here, conveniently near their private piers and commercial wharfs.  In 1794 Newell Narin leased from James Kip a wood frame Georgian-style building at 279 Water Street on the corner of Dover Street.  The two-and-a-half story building housed his “grocery and wine and porter bottler” business on the ground floor while he most likely lived above.

Before landfill would later move the riverfront two blocks away, the East River’s bank was just half a block to the east where Lawrence’s Wharf stood.

Two years later Narine was sent to debtor's prison, after which Kip leased the property to retired ship captain Peter Laing who continued running the grocery with his wife, Janet.  Later Laing purchased the building in what would be the first of a great many title changes.  Things apparently went smoothly for two decades, then the Laing’s sold the business in 1826 to attorney Charles G. Ferris.

Ferris leased the building and after his death it was managed by his estate.  As the Civil War approached, the climate of Water Street declined. Once-elegant captains’ homes were being converted to brothels, gambling houses and saloons.

The proprietors of 279 Water changed rapidly.  In 1847 Henry Williams opened his porter house selling malt liquor here. In 1858 John Henry Stelling and William Brosnan ran their saloon for one year before Thomas Norton took over the lease.

The neighborhood continued to get seedier.  In 1862 Catharine Curran was lured into the bar and murdered. According to the press, the 28-year old Curran had been “living a dissolute course of life with a man named James Winthrop.”  When Winthrop left her for another woman, Honora Morrissey, Catherine became jealous and stalked him for several weeks, begging that he come back to her.

After about a week, Winthrop decided that the only way to free himself was to murder her.  The New York Times reported that he “…in company with Honora, formed the diabolical plan of destroying her life by making her drink a mixture, composed of equal parts of burning fluid and alcohol; and incredible as it appear, witnesses testified upon the inquest that the deceased was compelled to drink three decanters full of this fiery fluid, each decanter containing a quart, in one hour.  The result was death in a short time thereafter.”

In 1867 Samuel Norton was arrested, bail being set at $100, for having “disposed of strong and spirituous liquors, wines, ales and beer on Sundays.”

Around this time, at 273 Water Street just down the block, Kit Burns was running his infamous rat pit in his Sportsmen’s Hall where bets were placed on how many wharf rats a terrier could kill in an hour and where “Jack the Rat” would bite off the heads of live mice and rats.

The depravity of the area caused reformers like Jerry Macauley to attempt to introduce religion.  From his Water Street Mission Macauley railed against the saloons and brothels.  On March 30, 1878 he was responsible for a raid that included 279 Water Street.  Nearly two dozen prostitutes ended up in court.

“Twenty-two of the most repulsive types of degraded womanhood stood huddled together at the prisoners’ bar in the Tombs Police Court yesterday,” reported The New York Times. Mary Reilley, “the proprietress of the premises,” was held on $1000 bail to appear for trial.  In April of the next year the District Attorney brought an indictment against the business as “a disorderly house,” or brothel.

In 1888 the pitched roof was removed and a third floor added.  The overall appearance was Victorianized with Eastlake-style window lintels, a modestly-ornate cornice and a late-Victorian saloon entrance with a corner cast iron pillar.

In 1891 Jeremiah J. Cronin and John Murphy ran a bar here until 1902 when Peter J. Boyle took over until Prohibition.  John Pikel leased "the store and basement” from Margaret C. Hyland on September 27, 1921, the year following the enactment of Prohibition.  While he ran the place ostensibly as a restaurant, patrons came for the “cider” and for the home-made beer that was imported from Brooklyn by bootlegger, Charlie Brennan.

As the 20th Century progressed, the Water Street neighborhood improved.  With the development of the South Street Seaport area starting in 1967, tourists and New Yorkers alike began discovering what had been a somewhat isolated area.

279 Water Street was renamed “The Bridge Café” in 1979 when the new owners of the building upgraded the restaurant and bar.  Today, inside or out, it is difficult to remember that the neat, red wooden building at 279 Water Street was the haunt of murderers, prostitutes and thugs during the last half of the 19th Century.

Friday, July 23, 2010

When the Walls Came Tumblin' Down at Chumley's Bar

The little brick two and a half story Federal house at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village stood for a century without attracting much attention. Built between 1820 and 1830, it exhibited the expected architecture of a working class house of the period: a slim, unadorned doorway without a stoop, three bays of six-over-six windows with plain stone lintels and sills and two pedimented dormers piercing the pitched roof.

A narrow horse walk separated No. 86 from its neighbor to the north and provided access to the rear. At some point the house was extended to the back and a side entrance on the first floor was added.  It opened onto a common garden or courtyard surrounded by Nos. 56 and 58 Barrow Street and 82 Bedford Street, with a narrow entry onto Barrow.

In 1905 the little house was still a private residence. Police Captain John J. Murtha of the Eldridge Street Police Station was living there with his wife, two children and a cook.

In 1920 Prohibition was enacted. Leland Chumley, an activist and member of the International Workers of the World, purchased the property in 1922 (various resources cite the year as 1926 and 1928; the more important point being simply that he bought it) and opened a speakeasy and gambling parlor – complete with hidden passageways and peepholes at the doors. The exit to the Barrow Street courtyard – by now called Pamela Court – was disguised as a bookcase with artificial books.

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but Lee Chumley retained the Prohibition-era atmosphere of the bar. No exterior signs were ever posted. Chumley’s was one of those arcane places the patrons had to know about in order to find.

Early on it became a favorite with the literary set. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had a favorite table. Before long Ernest Hemingway and Eugene O’Neill could be found drinking here. Lee Chumley started a tradition – if a writer paid a second visit, he could be called a regular and Chumley would request a dust jacket from a book to be displayed on the wall. As the years progressed, jackets from authors and poets like Norman Mailer, John Steinbeck, Edna St. Vincent Millay (who lived just down the street), Theodore Dreiser, William Faulker and scores of other notable American writers lined the walls.

In 1988 Douglas Martin of The New York Times wrote “It is to these rustic precincts, decorated with more than 125 jackets of books written by Chumley’s patrons (at least two visits required), that people still come to drink, think and put tentative pencil to paper — if only to balance checkbooks.”

Simone de Beauvoir visited Chumley’s several times, although she could never get the spelling correct. In her America Day by Day, published in 1948, “In Bedford Street is the only place in New York where you can read and work through the day, and talk through the night, without arousing curiosity or criticism: Chamley's. There is no music so that conversation is possible. The room is square, absolutely simple, with little tables set against the walls which are decorated with old book jackets. It has that thing rare in America: An atmosphere! “

Leland Chumley who The New York Times said had been “a laborer, stage-coach driver, artist, waiter, newspaper cartoonist and editorial writer,” died in 1935 from a heart attack. His wife Henrietta continued management of the bar until 1960.

Unfortunately, no serious maintenance on the structure was ever done.  In 2007, Steve Shlopak and his partners ran Chumley’s when workers hired to replace the façade were doing unauthorized interior work on the bar. Just before 2 pm on April 5 a brick chimney separated from an interior wall and crashed into the bar area, leaving a 6 by 10 foot hole in the wall.

A shoring company was immediately brought in to stabilize the structure, after which the bar, the book jackets, the artificial bookcase door – all the elements that Simone de Beauvoir attributed as “atmosphere” were removed and put into storage.

With every attempt to restore the landmarked structure, another set-back arose. Little by little nothing remained of the Federal building except two walls. The roof was gone, the floors were gone and behind the plywood construction barricade was a gaping hole in the ground.

Three years later, in 2010, a facsimile composed of concrete blocks is rising from the rubble. Framed-out Federal-style dormers have appeared where the roof will be and at some point the bar and the book jackets and barstools will be reinstalled and Chumley’s will open again.
Photo by Jeremiah Moss

While bringing back the fixtures is not a problem, a writer for The New York Times wonders how long it will take for the stale beer smell to return. The main question, however, is simply whether a reconstruction is in any way a restoration. When the newly-built, Disney World-like replica of the 1830s building is complete, is it still a landmark or just a new building?

Despite the commendable efforts to clone the old Chumley’s building, the historic property -- a Village mainstay and literary footnote -- has been lost forever.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery

Peter Stuyvesant purchased his farm, or bouwerie, from the Dutch West India Company in 1651. By 1660 he had built a family chapel on the grounds where, when he died in 1672, he was buried in a vault below.

As Peter’s grandson, Petrus, developed the land towards the end of the 18th Century, laying out a network of roads and erecting elegant family homes, he donated the chapel and its grounds to the Episcopal Church. The stipulation of Stuyvesant’s bequest was that a new chapel be built there. In compliance, the Church laid the cornerstone of Saint Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery on April 25, 1795.

The building, bounded by the present-day 10th Street, Stuyvesant Street and Second Avenue, was completed in 1799 and consecrated on May 9 of that year. Alexander Hamilton, the close friend of Stuyvesant’s son-in-law Nicholas Fish, provided legal assistance in incorporating St. Mark's Church, making it the first Episcopal parish independent of Trinity Church in the new world.

The parish of wealthy New York society, it was a graceful Georgian fieldstone building designed by John McComb, Jr., who had six years earlier designed the impressive Georgian home of James Watson at 7 State Street.

In 1828 the wooden Greek Revival steeple was added, following the designs of architects Martin Euclid Thompson and Ithiel Towne. In 1836 Thompson was called back to revamp the interior of the church at which time he removed the chunky square pillars supporting the balcony in favor of the slim, reeded Egyptian Revival pillars which survive today. Two years later the architect designed the heavy wrought-and-cast iron fence that surrounds the property.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

For decades after its consecration the church was seemingly a work-in-process and in 1858 the imposing cast iron Italianate portico was added. The porch is attributed to James Bogardus, a pioneer of cast iron architecture who planted the seed for the ornate cast iron facades that would eventually line lower Broadway.

In 1866 James Miller in his Stranger’s Guide for the City of New York said of St Mark’s “The steeple is lofty, but somewhat venerable in appearance, which is indeed the character of the entire structure. The church is venerable also on account of its historic associations; it stands on what was the estate of Petrus Stuyvesant, the last of the Dutch governors and his remains rest in a vault under the church, over which, on the east side, is a table indicating the fact. Here also repose the mortal remains of the English governor, Col. Sloughter and those of the American Governor, Tompkins.”

Miller neglected to mention that Daniel Tompkins was also Vice President under James Monroe. Also buried in the churchyard on the east and west sides of the church are Nicholas Fish (Revolutionary War officer, US Senator, New York State Governor and Secretary of State to U.S. Grant), retailer A. T. Stewart (his body was stolen from the graveyard and held for ransom contributing to Mrs. Stewart’s mental breakdown), Abraham Schermerhorn (United States Representative and father of Caroline Astor), Philip Hone (Mayor of New York 1825), Commodore Matthew Perry (who forced Japan to open trade relations with the US), and other famous 19th Century figures.

The church was stuccoed over at some point and 1936 photographs show an interesting Edwardian fresco, much in the style of Maxfield Parrish, in the pediment over the portico. Here animals and birds lounge in an idyllic setting under spreading trees.

photo from the collection of the Library of Congress

The 20th dentury saw St. Mark’s become increasingly involved with and supportive of the arts. The trend was started by Reverend Dr. W. Norman Guthrie who was Rector from 1910 to 1937. In 1923 Guthrie, who felt that a person’s spirituality could be fostered through the arts, wrote The Relation of The Dance to Religion.  He invited Isadora Duncan to perform at the church and later Martha Graham danced here.  From that start, the church’s Danspace Project is now renowned for promoting new work in dance. Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has said “Danspace has played a significant role in the arts ecology of New York and the entire dance world."

When a group of poets lost their meeting spot at the Telegraph Bar in 1966, Allen Ginsberg approached the Rector asking if they could meet in the church. They could.  And with that poetry joined dance at St. Mark’s.  Poetry readings were conducted by Ginsberg as well as W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Carl Sandburg, Kahlil Gibran, and William Carlos Williams. Eventually hundreds of writers and other performers appeared here. Sam Shepard staged his first few plays from St. Mark’s and visitors have been entertained by the likes of Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Yoko Ono, John Cage and Patti Smith.

photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

The spiritual and artistic life of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery was nearly extinguished when, on July 27,1978, a devastating fire tore through the structure, nearly destroying it. New Yorkers formed the Citizens to Save St. Mark’s organization that raised funds for the reconstruction of the building. The church hired architect Harold Edelman to direct the restoration. Edelman also designed the abstract stained glass windows that replaced the 19th Century balcony windows which were destroyed.

Today the historic St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery is as vital to the neighboring community as it was in the early 19th century. The oldest site of continuous religious practice in New York City, it continues as a fundamental force in developing arts in America.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Lost Broadway Central Hotel

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Elias Higgin’s 1868 Grand Hotel at Broadway and 31st Street had been opened less than a year before the carpet manufacturer again called upon architect Henry Engelbert to design another, even more impressive hotel in 1871.

Higgins chose to build on the site of the recently burnt LaFarge Hotel, on the west side of Broadway just above Bleecker Street. Here Englebert created another Second Empire confection–what James D. McCabe, Jr. called in 1882 “a monster establishment.” The marble-fronted hotel rose eight stories with a dramatic mansard roof.  The largest hotel in the United States, it boasted 630 rooms.

As the structure rose, The New York Times reported on November 11, 1869, “Three elevators, which will perform the trip from the first floor to the attic in thirty seconds, will be in use for the benefit of guests night and day. One item alone - upholstery and furniture - will involve an expenditure of $1,000,000. the articles mentioned having been ordered from Paris and this city."

The article continued, "The halls and rooms will require carpeting sufficient to cover seven acres, and will be of the finest quality--Brussels and velvet.  All the rooms will be heated with steam, and on each floor hydrants, hose, and everything necessary will be furnished to extinguish fire.  There will be three large dining-rooms extending from the main hall on the second story to the Mercer street wall, the largest of which will accommodate 500 guests.  There are at present; 350 men employed on the building.”  The total cost was to exceed $1.6 million.

Higgins' hotel was an instant success. Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell patronized its dining rooms.  In 1876 meetings were held here which resulted in the formation of the American Baseball League.  It was here on the winding marble staircase in 1872 that Jim Fisk was murdered.  In its eight ballrooms, well-dressed ladies and their escorts waltzed under gas-lit chandeliers.

The name of the hotel changed throughout the years from The Broadway Southern Hotel to the Grand Central Hotel, to the Broadway Grand Hotel and, in 1892, to the Broadway Central when Tilly Haynes took over.  Haynes spent $150,000 to bring the hotel up to date.  In its New Reference Map and Guide to New York City, Rand, McNally & Company said that the hotel "has been entirely refitted, refurnished, artistically decorated throughout, and provided with all the appliances of convenience and luxury which the science and taste of the day can suggest."

"Few hotels so handsome, and none whatever so comfortable, exist in the city as the new Broadway Central, with its magnificent halls, grand staircases, and splendid parlors occupying its entire Broadway front."

In 1923 wealthy businessman Meyer G. Manischewitz purchased the property.  Once again the interior was renovated.  Manishewitz added a $12,000 marble floor inlaid with a large brass Star of David and the name of the hotel in English and Yiddish.  Before long the hotel had established a reputation as providing the best kosher banquets in Manhattan.  The New Yorker, in 1934, wrote that the Broadway Central offered “seven sets of period rooms for wedding purposes, each set consisting of a reception-room, a bride’s room, a dining-room and a ballroom.”

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Both the area and the hotel declined, however, and a year after Henry Dercher and Matilda Edwards bought the building in May of 1969, they were taking in welfare clients at $5 per night with as many as seven people to a room.  Occupants complained of rats, exposed wiring, prostitutes and drug addicts.  A child fell to her death into an unprotected stairwell. Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz attempted to shut down the hotel, exhibiting glossy photos of garbage piled in the hallways and calling it “a squalid den of vice and iniquity.”

On December 27, 1971, Supreme Court Justice Irving Saypol ordered the owners to end the use of the building as “a haven for criminals and as a source of harassment to the people of the neighborhood.”  The State of New York had cited the hotel as “an open and notorious public nuisance,” a “base of operations” for criminals and “a market and meeting place for drug pushers and drug addicts.”

In the meantime, other problems were arising.  Tenants called the city warning about cracks and bulges in the interior walls and façade.  Various people wrote to the Department of Buildings.  In February 1973, a Building Department inspector noted that a wall “was bulging about a foot” from the second to the sixth floor.  He posted a violation.  Nothing was done.

Thenm on Friday, August 3, at 2:30 in the afternoon Gene Frankel heard the walls groaning.  At 5:10 plaster started falling from the ceiling.  Minutes later the Broadway Central Hotel crashed onto Broadway in a cloud of brick, marble and plaster dust.

Amazingly, of the 350 residents, only four died.  Elias Higgins’ palatial hotel which The New York Times had once called “one of the largest and most magnificent hotels on the Western Continent” was gone.  Months of finger-pointing and law suits ensued.  The needless loss of one of New York’s great architectural treasures to neglect and greed resulted in heightened public awareness of the plight of threatened historic properties.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jacob Mould's 1871 City Hall Park Fountain


After completion of the elegant City Hall in 1812, the large triangle of land fronting it was used only partially as a public park.  The city's first art museum, a circular building called The Rotunda was built here six years later and various other structures came and went.

The opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842 brought the city’s water supply from upstate.  A large fountain was soon installed in City Hall Park that spewed water 50 feet in the air.  It was at or near the fountain that public gatherings concerning the outbreak of the Mexican American War in 1846 were held, where Civil War recruitment drives were administered in 1862, and where barracks housed Civil War troops waiting to march off.

After the war, in 1867, the city erected a post office on the southern tip of the park, and in 1870 razed the Rotunda.  The following year Jacob Wrey Mould was commissioned to design a new fountain.  Mould, who would become chief architect of New York City Parks, was busy at the time co-designing elements of Central Park with Calvert Vaux.

His creation replaced the 1842 fountain.  Patently Mould in design, it was a Victorian extravaganza worthy of its high profile position in front of City Hall.  A granite and bronze central column sat within a 30-foot-square granite basin, which spilled into four semi-circular pools at its sides.  Four ornate gas-lit “candelabra” anchored the corners, and a gilt finial surmounted both the column and the lamps.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

The park and Mould’s fountain were enjoyed by tourists and New Yorkers alike.  Throughout the 1870s people crowded into the park for free concerts.

After World War I, however, civic taste turned from ornate Victorian designs to heroic allegorical monuments.  The Jacob  Wrey Mould fountain was disassembled in 1920 and shipped to Crotona Park in the Bronx.  Two years later a controversial fountain by Frederick William MacMonnies was installed.  The sculptural grouping, called Civic Virtue, depicted a muscular, nude male holding a sword, stepping over the prone figures of two females.  The grouping was little admired by female New Yorkers.

Amid the protests, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had the fountain dismantled and moved to Queens.  City Hall Park was without a fountain until 1972 when a new fountain, the gift of philanthropist George T. Delacorte, was installed.

During his second administration, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani became disenchanted with the rag-tag condition of City Hall Park and initiated a full-scale renovation and restoration.  In 1999 the project, which would cost nearly $35 million, was underway.  Pavement, which by now covered the park, was ripped up and grass and plantings reintroduced.  The heavy, cast iron fence was restored and elements replicated where necessary, and plans were laid for the return of the Jacob Wrey Mould fountain.

Conservations Solutions, Inc., the firm hired to restore the fountain, was faced with a daunting task.  During its years in the Bronx, the fountain's bronze elements had been stolen for their scrap value.  Where original carved capstones and copingstones had been taken or lost, blank gray stone blocks had been used as replacements.  For years, city maintenance workers had covered spray-painted graffiti with layer after layer of white paint.  

Carefully, Conservations Solutions removed the white paint and the underlying graffiti without damaging the original surviving finishes.  All missing granite, bronze and ceramic elements were reproduced using Mould’s original sketches and early photographs.  Not only were the fountain operations restored to the 1871 plans, the restored lamps burn gas again as they did during those summer concerts 140 years ago.

In 2000, the fountain restoration received the award of Best Park Restoration from the New York City Department of Parks.