Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The 1926 Art Deco Paramount Building - Times Square

photo NYPL Collection

By the end of World War I the motion picture industry had begun a serious migration from New York to California. Yet in 1926 when Paramount Pictures decided to build its new headquarters, President Adolf Zuckor chose Times Square for the site. The motion picture giant would make its mark on Broadway – the capitol of the American theater.

Architects C. W. Rapp and George L. Rapp of the Chicago-based firm Rapp and Rapp, had designed several Midwestern movie theatres.  Now they were given the substantial Paramount commission.

In May of 1926, the cornerstone was laid by Mayor Jimmy Walker. Sealed inside were three copper boxes containing the front pages of New York’s morning newspapers, three five-dollar gold coins, two Paramount feature films and news reels of Admiral Byrd’s Polar expedition. Thomas Edison sent a letter of congratulations.

Here on Broadway between 43rd and 44th Streets Rapp and Rapp produced a 33-story Art Deco tower, stair-stepping upward to an enormous four-faced clock surmounted by an illuminated globe. Stars replaced numerals on the clock faces, echoing the stars in the Paramount logo.

Photo by Wally Gobetz

Paramount spent $13.5 million on their new headquarters, the tallest building on Broadway north of the Woolworth Building. At night the globe could be seen from as far away as New Jersey.

On the Broadway side an ornate, curved marquee hung over the entrance to the theater. The lobby inside was modeled after the Paris Opera. Two grand, sweeping staircases curved upwards on either side. An enormous crystal chandelier hung from a baroque ceiling supported by marble columns.

photo NYPL Collection

The 3,664-seat auditorium was Neo-Renaissance in style with classical busts and statues in recessed niches, gilded detailing, and a frescoed ceiling. Red carpeting led to the stage hung with stories-high red velvet draperies. The orchestra pit was situated on hydraulic elevators, enabling it to be raised and lowered as needed.

The coup-de-grace was the “Dowager Empress,” one of the largest pipe organs ever built by Wurlitzer. Music accompanying the silent films emanated from the organ’s 33 tons of pipes and 36 ranks.

Organist Jesse Crawford at the massive Wurlizter organ.  photo via nycago.com

Opening on November 19, 1926, the theater took in a staggering $80,000 the first week.

photo via nycago.com

Paramount used its New York theater to premier many of its films, introducing stars like Mae West, Claudette Colbert and William Powell.  But the Great Depression made movie-going an avoidable luxury.  Through the early 1930s the venue was barely profitable. In an effort to boost attendance, the Paramount’s managers added live music as the Swing Era took hold. In December 1935 Glen Gray’s orchestra played here.  And the public loved it.

Big bands became a staple of the Paramount, offering the music of the biggest names in American swing: Tommy Dorsey, Xavier Cugat, Fred Warring, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, the Andrews Sisters, Guy Lombardo, Eddy Duchin, Harry James, Phil Spitalny and Gene Krupa among them.  As the years passed, entertainers like Jack Benny, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Frank Sinatra would work the Paramount audience.

In 1944 with the advent of World War II and the accompanying “black-out” orders, both the clock and the globe were painted black. They would remain that way until their restoration in 1996.

Famous 1950's music promoter Alan Freed used the Paramount to stage live rock-and-roll shows, spotlighting hot new talent like Buddy Holly and the Crickets.  Here, too, Elvis Presley’s first movie, Love Me Tender, premiered on November 15, 1956. Thousands of fans crushed onto Broadway on opening night, under a 40-foot Elvis Presley cut-out.

photo NYPL Collection

The popularity of television in the 1960s and the decline of the Broadway neighborhood devastated the theatre’s revenues. After the final screening of The Carpetbaggers on August 4, 1964 Paramount padlocked the doors to the palatial theater.

Within weeks the grand staircase was gone. The frescoes were destroyed. The chandeliers were sold. All traces of the lavish movie palace were obliterated as the space was converted into stores and offices. The mammoth organ was moved to a Wichita, Kansas convention center. The familiar marquee that once held the over-sized cut-out of Elvis Presley and had announced the movies of Gary Cooper, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino was removed and destroyed.

Then in 2000, the World Wrestling Federation leased 47,500 square feet of the Paramount Building, spending $38 million to create WWF New York – a wrestling-themed restaurant, retail store and club. Astoundingly, the group painstakingly recreated the original Paramount Theater marquee and arch at a cost of $8 million, including the Paramount logo. Although WWF New York was relatively short-lived, the Paramount arch and marquee survive.

The 33-story Paramount Building is an iconic presence in the Broadway Theatre District. Every day at 1:45 pm and 7:45 pm the giant clock atop the building chimes, alerting Broadway theater-goers that they have 15 minutes before curtain.

Monday, August 30, 2010

St. Thomas Church -- Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street

Photo NYPL Collection

Shortly after 6:00 on the morning of August 8, 1905 the housekeeper of the rectory of St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, Mrs. Sandsbach, discovered a fire raging in the sanctuary of the church. Mrs. Sandsbach ran screaming into the street, alerting policeman Thomas Hewitt who pulled the handle of a nearby firebox.

By 8:00 the Richard Upjohn-designed church, the third building for the congregation, was a smoking ruin. Destroyed were the interiors by John LaFarge, including two important paintings, and sculptures by St. Gaudens.

Within 24 hours plans for a new church were being discussed. In the next day’s New York Times the rector, Reverend Dr. Ernest M. Stires, reported “Well, the people of New York may be quite sure that the congregation of St. Thomas will put up a church worthy in every way of the city and the site. I think I may say it will all be Gothic, and that no pains will be spared to make it of the purest architecture, for, to my mind, there is no style so fitting for divine worship.”

St. Thomas Church was perhaps the wealthiest congregation in the country, sitting on 5th Avenue at 53rd Street among the palatial mansions of New York’s elite like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. “One parishioner has already offered $50,000 toward the necessary expenses,” said Stires.

The new church would have risen quickly, given the amount of money donated by the moneyed members; however when in 1906 the San Francisco Earthquake devastated that city Reverand Stires sent the entire building fund to California to assist the victims. Fund-raising had to be started anew.

The congregation met in a temporary wooden structure on the site for five years before construction started on their new edifice. Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, principals in the firm Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson and both esteemed ecclesiastic architects, were given the commission. Their French High Gothic church would rival St. Patrick’s Cathedral a few blocks to the south.

In 1908 The New York Times exclaimed “The new St. Thomas Episcopal Church to be built at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-third Street, to replace the edifice burned two years ago, will outclass in cost and appearance any single Protestant Church in America, that is designed for parish and not cathedral uses…The new church will cost from $800,000 to $1,000,000.”

“The new church…will resemble Westminster Abbey in some particulars,” it said.

Ralph Adams Cram explained “Our prime intention is the construction of a parish church which in its design, its construction, and its decoration should represent, so far as we are able to produce this result, a model of ecclesiastical architecture conceived in the great spirit of the Middle Ages…” He added “Just because of this high ideal, St. Thomas’s Church will be, in all probability, the most expensive church per square foot built thus far in the United States.”

Goodhue and Adams insisted that no steel be used in the construction of the building, using only stone as in their medieval models. The stone was quarried in Kentucky, the interior being made of a “warm golden sandstone” and the exterior “a silvery limestone.” Guastavino tiles would be used for the high vault.

The cornerstone was laid in 1910, sitting squarely atop the two former cornerstones. Construction was not without problems, however. The millionaires’ mansions around the site were shaken daily by dynamite blasts as the foundation was prepared. On September 7, a particularly severe blast sent showers of rocks onto the roofs and conservatories of the houses nearby; one boulder piercing the roof of William A. Kissam’s residence.

“A shower of stones, some as big as paving blocks, fell on some of the best houses in the neighborhood,” reported The New York Times.

The stone that pierced Kissam’s roof “frightened Mrs. Kate Scully, the caretaker, almost out of her wits,” the paper said. “She ran to the street, thinking that the house had been blown up, and continued her dash down the avenue…”

photo by Eric Hunt

The church was completed in 1913 and despite Reverend Stires’ protest that “I wish to especially emphasize the fact that the new church has been planned without any attempt at display,” its proportions were cathedral-like, the nave soaring upwards 95 feet. Visually staggering was the magnificent 80-foot high carved stone reredos, one of the largest in the world, pierced to expose Chartes-like stained glass windows high above the altar.

The breath-taking windows were designed by the English stained glass artist, James Humphries Hogan.

Outside, the bell tower rises 15 stories. The triple-arched entrance way, the immense central rose window and the sumptuous, overall carvings and Gothic ornamentation immediately cast St. Thomas Church as one of the foremost architectural treasures on the Avenue and in New York in general.

In 2007 a painstaking $20 million, 3-year restoration of the windows was initiated. The windows were, one-by-one, dismantled and each of the 9 million small pieces of glass was hand-cleaned and replaced.

St. Thomas's Church survives on a much-change Fifth Avenue.  Gone are the brownstone mansions of 1911, replaced by glass and steel skyscrapers.  The sumptuous beauty of the edifice, however, remains.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The "Atrocious" Garibaldi Statue - Washington Square

Not long after the death of Giuseppe Garibaldi on June 2, 1882, the editors of the Italian-American newspaper Progreso Italio-Americano began fund-raising efforts for a statue memorializing the Italian hero. Nothing short of grand would do.

Italian sculptor Giovanni Turini was commissioned to execute the work – a complex grouping of three figures arranged on a naturalistic rock pedestal. Garibaldi was to stand atop the rock, reaching across his torso to grasp the hilt of his sword. On one side, below him, an Italian soldier would stand with his bayonet ready; at the other side would be a bugler sounding the call to arms. It would be a costly but memorable monument. The main figure was estimated to cost $4000 with the two others adding $3000 to the total – not including the sculpting of the pedestal.

Because Garibaldi had lived a year – between 1850 and 1851 – on Staten Island, his popularity with New York Italians was especially passionate. Donations to the newspaper initially poured in.

By September 8, 1885 enough money was raised to forge the main statue. A preliminary unveiling was held at Bauer’s Union Park in Harlem to the raucous approval of 3000 Italians, many of whom had served under Garibaldi.

Despite the popularity of the hero and the overwhelming desire to memorialize him, donations tapered off. The working class Italians had given what they could. Nevertheless, the ambitious project plodded ahead. Three years later The New York Times reported that a site had been chosen for the statue.

“Work is advancing on the foundation for the statue of Garibaldi, which will occupy a prominent place east of the fountain in Washington Park…The site was selected by the Park Commissioners and is entirely satisfactory to the Committee, but not so to the Sculptor, Mr. Turini, who claims that it is too near the sidewalk to be effective.”

Mr. Turini would find other things unsatisfactory before long.

With everything apparently under control in New York, the sculptor went to Europe for a brief stay. While he was gone the committee in charge of the statue project realized the funds for their grandiose grouping would never be raised – already the single forged statue had cost $10,000; well over-budget and more than they had raised for the entire project altogether.

With the scheduled unveiling closing in and only one figure cast, the committee decided to forego the grouping and, instead, mount Garibaldi on a traditional stone base. But there was a problem.

The Garibaldi figure had been designed to stand on an irregular rock, not a flat surface.

The New York Times later reported, “Mr. Turini is always very sad when he tells what happened next, and art must have felt very badly indeed when the legs of Garibaldi were yanked into a new position after being cast in bronze.” Indeed, Turini called the foundry workers who disfigured his art in order to make it fit the pedestal “cruel amputators.”

The Times said “The man who suggested the change is said to have argued with Garibaldi’s friends in the Italian colony on the basis that Garibaldi was dead anyway, and he would not object, forgetting that the public might some day realize that it had a monstrosity of a statue on its hands.”

“Without much ceremony,” said The New York Times, “Garibaldi’s legs were made to fit by bending them in the bronze foundry.”

Turini was heartsick. “If I had only known what was to be done to the design,” he said, “I would have modeled and cast a new statue then and there at my own expense. I knew nothing of it until the bent figure was in position.”  The single, now-contorted, statue was out of context, he explained “For example, if you cut 50 pages out of the heart of a 100-page book and try and make sense out of what is left, that is just what was done with my Garibaldi group.”

Nevertheless, the dedication went on. On June 4, 1888 the awkward 8-foot, 10-inch statue of Guiseppe Garibaldi on its granite base was unveiled. More than twenty bands played and an enormous crowd of New York Italians pressed in to hear Vincenzo Palidori, Chairman of the Statue Committee, Mayor Hewitt and other dignitaries. Beneath the 14-1/2 foot pedestal a glass jar had been buried. Inside was a clipping from Progreso Italio-Americano of June 4, 1882 regarding the hero’s death, a listing of the statue committee, and other documents including a flier announcing the unveiling.

The mayor spoke at length about Garibaldi’s life and triumphs. He never mentioned the odd angle at which his statue stood.

In May of 1896 Giovanni Turini announced that he would design and have cast a new statue of Garibaldi as his gift to New York City, provided the old statue was destroyed. Although the newspapers reported that the old statue would be replaced, it never came to pass.

The public was not allowed, however, to forget the vandalism. The New York Times printed a lengthy article on May 7, 1899 that included the Garibaldi monument. The headline read “Unsightly New York Statues.”

In 1901, when discussing a proper site for the new Alexander Lyman Holley statue in the Square, The New York Times again derided the Garibaldi figure, “The bronze contortionist, labeled Garibaldi, on the east of the driveway through the park, means something to the habitual frequenters of that pleasure ground and is appropriatedly placed.”

A reader, in March 1904, wrote to the editor of The New York Times regarding park statuary. “The most atrocious of all is the horrible effigy of Garibaldi in Washington Square. That figure is enough to make the park sparrows quake with fear and to make the babies in their carriages cross-eyed in their endeavors to avoid seeing it.”

Nevertheless, the Garibaldi statue continued to be central to Italian festivities and memorials for decades. In 1907 a procession of 10,000 left from the Washington Square statue to the Garibaldi cottage in Staten Island; and in 1917 the Prince of the House of Savoy visited it, placing a wreath there.

By the 1960s an unexplainable tradition had developed among the New York University Finance School students whereby each first year student would toss a penny to the base of Garibaldi’s pedestal.

The entire monument was moved about 15 feet in 1970, at which time the long-forgotten glass jar was discovered and its contents read for the first time in almost a century.

The monument was restored in 1998, including cleaning both the statue and base, repatining the bronze and applying a protective coating as well as repairing the stone. The general’s scabbard, which had long been stored away after being vandalized, was reapplied in September of 2000.

Garibaldi still stands awkwardly on his pedestal . More than a century after his unveiling, however, the furor over his posturing has greatly diminished.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The 1796 Blackwell House - Roosevelt Island

Photo Olivier Perrin

Sitting squarely in the middle of the East River in 1637 was a lush, green island that the Dutch called Varckens Eylandt, or Hog Island. That year Governor Wouter van Twiller bought the land from two local native chiefs and within only two years it was being farmed under land grants from the Amsterdam Chamber of the West India Company.

Four farmers worked the land here until 1658 – Francois Fyn, Jonas Bronck (whose name became attached to the Bronx River and the borough of The Bronx), Laurens Duyts and Jan Alteras. The farmers did not fair extremely well in their two decades on the island. Laurens Duyts was ousted from the entire province for “selling his wife into immoral slavery and for gross immoralities committed by himself” and the last of these farms fell into default.

The English wrested control over New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1665, renaming it the City of New York. Two years later they took over the 107 acre Hog Island and occupied it until the end of the Revolutionary War. In 1668 British Governor Nicolls granted Captain John Manning a patent for the island.

Five years later the captain's fortunes turned. He bungled the defense of Fort James against a Dutch attack in 1673; allowing them to take possession of the fort without firing a shot. Captain Manning was disgraced at his court martial and, afterward, publicly shunned. He retreated to his private island and, apparently with the help of drink, was able to endure his self-imposed exile. One of Manning’s few visitors, the Reverend Charles Wolley, mentioned in 1701 that the captain’s “entertainment was commonly a bowl of rum-punch.”

Upon Manning’s death on February 20, 1688 his step daughter inherited Hog Island. While she and her husband, Jacob Blackwell, were there the British used it to incarcerate American prisoners of war. By 1784 Blackwell’s sons, James and Jacob, had inherited the property which by now boasted “two small Dwelling Houses, a Barn, Bake and Fowl House, a Cyder Mill, a large orchard, stone quarries and running springs.” Twelve years later James Blackwell erected his clapboard farmhouse on what was now known as Blackwell’s Island.

The 1796 home was simple and unassuming. The main house was two stories with a peaked roof punctuated by two dormers on either side. A single-story kitchen sat to one side. A simple bead board under the eaves, six-over-six windows with plain wooden frames and an unembellished doorway established the rural character of the building. A deep wooden porch running the length of the east side caught the breeze on hot summer days.

James Blackwell ran his farm until 1828 when the City of New York purchased the island for $32,500 as a site for desperately-needed institutions for the rapidly growing population. Before long the Smallpox Hospital, the Almshouse, a penitentiary and other public buildings were erected. In the meantime the Blackwell House was used to house wardens of the various facilities. At some point before the Civil War a simple, Greek Revival-style wooden pedimented porch was added to the west entrance.

Blackwell House - west entrance

Another name change for the island came in 1921 when it became Welfare Island, and again in 1972 when it was renamed Roosevelt Island. By now the house had sat abandoned and derelict for years. Porches rotted, windows were broken out and sashes smashed. Inside water, vermin and vandals were taking their toll.

The New York State Urban Development Corporation instigated a survey of structures on Roosevelt Island – one of which, the Renwick-designed Smallpox Hospital had collapsed to a ruin out of sheer neglect. Architect Giorgio Cavaglieri was commissioned to completely restore the Blackwell House.

Saved at the 11th hour, the house is now a community center and represents a fine example of 18th Century New York farm architecture.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The 1834 David Christie House - 131 Charles Street

Photo Bad Mama Jamas

By the 1830’s Greenwich Village was filling with the handsome brick homes of working class families. Block after block of Federal houses were built by carpenters, builders and other skilled laborers, creating a charming and stable neighborhood.

Among them was the home of David Christie who spent about $2,600 to build his red brick, two-story house in 1834 at No. 131 Charles Street. Typical of its neighboring buildings, it featured a peaked roof with two paneled and pedimented dormers; a wide bead board beneath the eave, six-over-six paned windows with simple sills and lintels and elegant Flemish bond brickwork.

photo by Bad Mama Jones
A handsome wrought-iron fence protects the English basement and a low brownstone stoop rises elegantly to the doorway. It was here, in the entranceway, that Christie spent extra on ornamentation. Two wooden Ionic columns flank the eight-paneled doorway, over which sits a delicate leaded over light, surrounded by carved wooden framing. A particularly attractive small oval window pierced the brick façade over the door to the horse walk which lead to the back of the property.

Despite being only a few blocks from the riverfront, the neighborhood remained respectable.

Christie’s family remained at 131 Charles for 30 years, selling it and moving away in 1864, just before the close of the Civil War. Remarkably the residence remained a single-family home well into the 20th Century. During the late Victorian Era, the owners cautiously updated the doorway by removing the Federal-style lintel and replacing it with one in the then-modern Eastlake-style. The interesting oval window was bricked up at some point, as well.

Little by little commercial buildings encroached on the Charles Street neighborhood. The grand Beaux Arts style Charles Street Police Station was erected next door in 1897, squashing No. 131 between the tall building to the East. The owners, however, one after another, never relinquished the residential purpose of the house.

In 1957 esteemed photographer Diane Arbus moved into the little building in the rear of No. 131 Charles, using the charming horse walk doorway to come and go. Arbus lived here until 1966 during which time her first exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art was staged and she received two Guggenheim Fellowships.

Aside from the replaced horse walk door and the Eastlake-style doorway lintel, the Christie house is remarkably unaltered. Even the windows retain their original 1834 wooden frames. Once typical, it is now a relatively rare example of Federal working-class residences in Manhattan. Labeled by the Landmarks Preservation Commission as “charming” No. 131 Charles Street still manages to be a home.

Photo NYPL Collection

Monday, August 23, 2010

"The Big Store" -- 1896 Siegel-Cooper Department Store

from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1893 when the World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago, Henry Siegel and Frank Cooper were running a highly successful department store there. The gleaming white, monumental architecture of the fair left a lasting impression on Siegel who suddenly envisioned a store unsurpassed world-wide.

Only two years later the designs had been drawn by architects DeLemos & Cordes; a colossal structure to be built on 6th Avenue – along the Ladies’ Mile – between 18th and 19th Street. It was intended to astound. As plans were prepared for filing with the Department of Buildings, The New York Times announced on March 23, 1895 the anticipated 85,560 square foot store.

“Siegel, Cooper & Co. have recognized, as progressive New-York merchants have recognized also, that a dry goods building need not be a public eyesore in the street… A splendid tower will be built on the Sixth Avenue side, in the centre of the front, that will reach 250 feet above the sidewalk. This tower will be surmounted by a great cluster of electric lights that will be visible from a long distance. The walls of the building are to be of different kinds of stone, gracefully ornamented.”

The $4 million that Siegel and Cooper spent on their “gracefully ornamented” building bought them the largest department store in the world. The scope of the structure was unheard of – six stories tall and a full block wide, stretching back to Fifth Avenue. Lavish Beaux-Arts ornamentation in marble, yellow brick, terra cotta, copper and bronze recalled “the grandeur of ancient Rome.”

Two gigantic bronze, fluted pillars supported the triple-arched entranceway. On the second floor over-sized windows allowed passengers on the 6th Avenue elevated train to window shop. A ramp enabled those same passengers to enter directly into the store on the second floor. In ornamentation, sheer size and grandeur, Siegel-Cooper outdid all competitors.  Henry Siegel deemed it "The Big Store."

Central to the first floor was a fountain in the center of which was a 13-foot high statue of “The Republic,” by Daniel C. French. Costing $15,000 it was brass with face and arms of white marble. Colored lights illuminated the fountain. “The figure is a heroic one of a female in classical garb,” said The New York Times. “The arms are extended upward. One hand supports a staff of Liberty, the other a golden orb, on which an eagle perches. On the globe glows an electric star, the light of which is in vacuum and opalescent…”

Before long the phrase “meet me at the fountain” was a catch-phrase for shoppers along the Ladies' Mile.

The day after the store’s opening in 1896, The New York Times reported that nearly 150,000 people attempted to enter the store. Inside 3,000 employees were waiting to serve them. “Persons visiting Siegel, Cooper & Co.’s store will be spared the annoyance of seeing over-worked shop girls behind the counters and children of stunted growth running up and down stairs. There will be separate elevators for the use of the employees,” said The New York Times. For its children employees, Siegel-Cooper provided a classroom and two hours of school per day.

In addition to the expected goods – silverware, linens, clothing and china, for instance -- Siegel-Cooper sold groceries (canned goods were canned on the premises), furniture, pets and hardware. An enormous refrigerated room kept meats and dairy foods fresh.  In the fish department, huge tanks displayed the live fish for the shopper's ease of choice. On the roof, an vast conservatory offered giant palms, orchids and rare plants for sale.

Francis Morrone and James Iska, in their The Architectural Guidebook to New York City, wrote “The quintessential New York experience was to buy a five-cent ice-cream soda and sit beside the fountain, taking in the pageant of fashionably attired women making their shopping rounds.”

A girl in pigtails follows her well-dressed mother base the colossal bronze columns.  A wooden show window projects onto the sidewalk.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

Of the 124 departments, some were found in no other shopping establishment. The store offered both a dentist and doctor office, a beautician and a barber shop, a post office, an office for theatre tickets and a bank.  In the basement the store operated its own plant for power, lighting, heating and ventilation.  The bicycle department had a track for test rides.

In September 1896 a rumor circulated that Siegel-Cooper would be offering a sale on bicycles -- $100 bikes would be sold for $9.99. Before dawn on September 14, 1896 several men in bicycle suits had lined up. By 7:00 the crowd had grown to a few hundred.

And it continued to grow.

An hour and a half later Police Captain Chapman estimated the number at 40,000, blocking 6th Avenue from 17th Street to 22nd. When the doors to the store were finally opened, one patrolman suffered two broken ribs in the crush of the crowd.  Upstairs in the bicycle department “The counter was overturned. The railings were broken. Cases of wheels were knocked down and men in trying to extricate themselves stepped on the bicycles and broke some,” reported The New York Times. “During the trouble dresses were torn and a few women fainted. No one besides the policemen were hurt much.”

There had never been any bicycles on sale that day.

By 1904 Henry Siegel, whom Joseph Devorkin called “the Napoleon of the Department Store Industry,” was financially over-extended. He sold his department store to Joseph B. Greenhut for $500,000. Greenhut later reported that Siegel cried during the transaction. Greenhut’s timing, however, was bad.

In 1902 the Macy Department Store had moved uptown to a block-encompassing emporium on West 34th Street.  Little by little the shopping district followed. By 1915 Greenhut’s store failed. Although he reorganized and reopened, it lasted only three years, closing for good in 1918.

As World War I raged overseas, Henry Siegel’s Renaissance-style palace was put into use as a military hospital. Where Edwardian ladies with broad-brimmed hats had shopped for laces and Limoges teacups, doughboys now recuperated in make-shift wards.

World War I soldiers at the US Debarkation Hospital #3 within the Siegel-Cooper Building.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

After the war the grand structure was reduced to loft space. In 1937 the central tower was removed and at some point the statue of The Republic from the fountain was shipped off to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Tishman Speyer purchased the mostly-empty building in 1987 and in 1991 exterior restoration was initiated. Now, along with most of the great emporiums of The Ladies’ Mile, the Siegel-Cooper building has been rejuvenated with new stores. The Siegel-Cooper had little alteration to its façade even at street level and the exterior looks very much as it did on opening day in 1896.

photographs by the author

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The 1908 Central Park Carousel

photo by Ralph Hockens

Included in the original designs for Central Park was a children’s area where Victorian youngsters could play in the fresh, open air and enjoy amusements not available elsewhere in the city. Among those amusements was a carousel.

In those early days the term referred variously to the ride or the building that housed it. In his 1882 “New York by Gaslight,” James D. McCabe, Jr. wrote “A few steps north of the swings is 'The Carrousel,' a circular building, fitted up with hobby horses and merry go rounds, for the amusement of younger children.”

The "hobby horses and merry go rounds" (there was actually only one) McCabe described were gaily colored and fantastic – certain to captivate young imaginations. Opened in 1871, the great turntable ran on mule power. As children laughed in delight, riding their wooden painted steeds above, a mule in a pit below ground powered the mechanism along. The animals, plodding along on a treadmill, were trained to stop and go when the operator stomped his boot on the carousel floor.

In May of 1886 Park Commissioners proposed an edict against amusements in the Park on Sundays – a motion that elicited rapid response from the public. Commissioner John D. Crimmins admitted that “The carrousel was the special delight of small boys. No complaints had been made against these amusements.”

The public opinion won out and the carousel kept turning.

The city was captivated in the Spring of 1905 as The New York Times readers followed the story of 5-year old tourist Marie Van Mater of Denver who, while riding the carousel had carefully laid her rag doll, Herbert, on the ground nearby. The little girl had done so because the lion on which she rode “was so fierce that she feared for Herbert.”

After the girl had ridden several times, she found Herbert had been stolen. She was so distraught that the staff of the Netherland Hotel where her family was staying scoured the Park around the carousel and her mother posted an ad in The Times:

"LOST – At merry-go-round or carrousel in Central Park, on Sunday, April 16, one rag doll; $5 reward for return to Netherland, 5th Av. And 59th."

The hotel was besieged with people carrying dolls, claiming to have found them in the Park. “Five dollars reward tempted those who were foolish enough to imagine that a five-year old girl would not know her own precious Herbert from every other doll on earth,” said The New York Times.

In the end a little impoverished waif returned Herbert, refusing the reward because she had stolen him. Another story from the carousel ended happily.

In 1912 the days of underground mule power were, happily for the mules, a thing of the past when an electric motor was installed. Then in 1924 the carousel burned to the ground.

The new carousel spun merrily along until November of 1950 when this one, too, burned. “The Central Park carrousel, dear to the hearts of small New Yorkers since 1871, was ruined by fire before dawn yesterday. Its forty-four gaudy wooden steeds were charred into black immobility, while fire and water combined to halt its mechanism and silence its carnival music,” reported The Times.

The 1951 Friedsam Building
A search for a suitable replacement was initiated.  Amazingly, a wonderful, if derelict, carousel carved by the Brooklyn firm of Stein & Goldstein between 1908 and 1911 was found abandoned in an old trolley terminal at Coney Island. Utilizing a $75,000 gift from the Michael Friedsam Foundation that included a new building, the New York City Parks Department restored the ride at its Randall's Island facility; repainting the nearly life-sized horses and updating the equipment.

Mayor Impellitteri rides the restored carousel 1951 - photo NYPL collection

On July 3, 1951 the carousel was operating with rides for free on that opening day. Mayor Impellitteri rode a chestnut charger along with other politicians and hordes of shouting children. With 58 hard-carved horses and two chariots, the carousel is one of the largest in the country and considered one of the finest examples of American turn-of-the century folk art in existence.

The vintage Ruth & Sohn band organ was modified to play 150 Wurlitzer paper music rolls by Carousel Works of Mansfield, Ohio. 

In the 1990s the Central Park Conservancy funded new landscaping around the carousel and, once again, the restoration of the horses.  More recently, the band organ was refurbished by Gavin McDonough.

Throughout the years the carousel has attracted young and old, rich and not-so-rich (“Mrs. John F. Kennedy rode the horses on the Central Park carousel shortly before noon yesterday with her son, John Jr.” reported The Times in 1964).

Today the ride costs $2.50, up from fifty cents in 1871, providing entertainment to nearly 250,000 riders every year.

Rag dolls ride for free.

Many thanks to Richard Concepcion, member of the National Carousel Association for his invaluable input on the above.  Mr. Concepcion worked on the Central Park Carousel from 1973 to 1980.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Columbia University's 1897 Low Library

In the spring of 1895, Columbia University’s new Morningside campus was an accumulation of small brick-and-stone buildings and houses. University President Seth Low envisioned a grand focal point for the campus in the form of a library.

The alumni were less than enthusiastic for the costly project so Low defiantly undertook it himself. On May 7 of that year The New York Times reported that “President Seth Low made a formal offer to assume personally the cost of erecting the new library at One Hundred and Sixteenth Street, on Morningside Heights, the site of the new Columbia College building. The building is to cost $1,000,000 and is to be a memorial to President Low’s father; the late Abiel Abbot Low, ‘a merchant who taught his sons to value the things for which Columbia stands.’”

According to The Times, the gift “produced a profound impression” on the Trustees who immediately accepted.

photo NYPL Collection

As Low had visualized, the library was to be built “in the centre of a terrace occupying the highest point of land of the new site for the college buildings.” He commissioned Charles McKim of the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White to design the structure. The Times hinted of what was to be expected. “The Library Building itself will be in the classic style, designed in the form of a Greek cross, and surmounted by a dome.”

Two years later, when the building was finished, a monumental Neo-Classical temple sat majestically above a grand cascade of wide stone stairs and terraces. McKim had drawn his inspiration for the main structure from the Pantheon and from the Baths of Diocletian for the immense arched windows. Ten granite ionic columns rose 35 feet forming the entrance portico. Above the central structure the largest freestanding granite dome in the country crowned it all.

photo NYPL Collection

Great bronze doors opened from the portico into a “lofty marble portal to the main vestibule, paved with marble slabs” and ornamented with marble pilasters. Here busts of Zeus, Appolo and Pallas Athena were displayed. Ahead of the vestibule was the rotunda – the main reading room. Illuminated by the huge windows, with the 70-foot diameter dome above, the rotunda was encircled by a 29-foot high colonnade of rich green Connemara marble from Ireland. The columns sat on black Belgian marble bases with cast-bronze capitals.

The rotunda rose to a height of 106 feet and from an upper gallery Roman and Greek philosophers or statesmen – Demosthenes, Sophocles, Augustus Caesar and Euripides – stared down upon the students reading below.

By 1934 the library had outgrown its home and the new Butler Library was constructed. Seth Low’s grand gift became the administrative center of the campus, housing the offices of the President and Provost among other administrative offices. The imposing rotunda became the site of exhibitions and ceremonial events.

photo NYPL Collection
McKim’s masterful design was designated a New York City Landmark in 1967. A year later The Low drew national attention when it was occupied by students protesting, among other things, the Vietnam War. The protestors barricaded themselves within the office of the president, rifling through files searching for incriminating documents. The university was forced to close for days and national news coverage followed “The Columbia Protests” until the police finally routed the students with tear gas several days later

On December 23, 1987 the Low was included on the National Register of Historic Places, the designation noting that “…this building is one of the most important Neo-Classical structures in America and is one of architect Charles Folen McKim's masterpieces…This campus design is today recognized as a classic of Beaux Arts planning principles.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The John Henry Hammond House - 9 East 91st Street

On April 6, 1899 The New York Times listed the wedding gifts received by Mr. and Mrs. John Henry Hammond, including “a necklace and tiara of diamonds from her parents.” The newspaper failed to mention their other gift of a limestone mansion on 91st Street.

The bride was the former Emily Vanderbilt Sloane and when her father, William D. Sloane of W. & J. Sloane, approved her engagement to Hammond he announced he would present the couple with a new home. John Hammond's male ego was bruised at the thought. “I will not be a kept man,” he bristled.

He apparently was not sufficiently indignant to refuse the gift, however.

Sloane purchased the lot of land at No. 9 East 91st Street from Andrew Carnegie and architects Carrere & Hastings were given the commission to design the house. Completed in 1903, it was a grand Renaissance-style mansion which Emily Sloane filled with Louis XVI-style furniture manufactured by her father’s company. Modeled closely upon 16th and 18th Century Italian palazzo designs, it offered the family a private courtyard with fountain as an elegant respite from summer heat.

Inside were elaborate marble mantles and stairways, crystal chandeliers, tapestries, Oriental rugs and paneled walls with gilded moldings. The large windows onto 91st Street were hung with heavy damask curtains.

The house had two elevators and on the second floor a suite of grand public rooms often entertained 300 guests at Mrs. Hammond’s frequent musicales. Here were an Elizabethan-style library with 18-foot high walls and a Louis XVI 50-foot by 28-foot ballroom. As the Hammonds five children grew, the regulation-size squash court on the fifth floor was used less for squash than for roller skating.

Sixteen servants took care of the Hammonds' needs.  The kitchens were in the basement, far below the elegant dining room; presenting a problem for the servants attempting to deliver warm food to the table. John Hammond’s daughter, Adele, reminisced decades later “Father said he’d never had a hot meal.”

The Hammonds lived in their limestone palazzo for forty-four years, where no alcohol or tobacco was ever consumed. Many years later Rachel Hammond Breck remembered “Mother’s parties were never too much fun and never lasted too long because no liquor was served.”

Demon tobacco was high on her list of evils, as well. On January 19, 1922 at a luncheon for Castle School alumnae in the Waldorf-Astoria, Emily Hammond warned “If American women are to be leaders of the world, they must keep themselves without taint, and that includes the smoking of cigarettes.”

Mrs. Hammond’s taste in “correct” music was tortured when John, the youngest of the Hammond children, took an early shine to jazz music. When he announced that he had invited Benny Goodman to the house to play, Emily Hammond consented so long as the musician limit his selections to Mozart.

Eventually, Goodman not only played jazz at 9 East 91st Street, but he married one of the Hammond daughters, Alice.

In 1946 the Hammonds sold their home to Dr. Ramon Castroviejo, an ophthalmologist who used it not only as his residence but as a private clinic as well, making slight alterations to the interior. He remained in the mansion for 31 years before selling it to the Soviet Union in 1975 for $1.6 million, one year after the US and the USSR agreed to establish consulates.

William Gleckman was hired to modernize the structure – updating the electrical service, installing air-conditioning and a theatre, and gating off the courtyard. Although the Soviets completed the renovations a year later, they were unable to move in because the US had not finished their consulate in Kiev – the agreement stipulated that neither consulate could open before the other.

Trouble arose when, in December 1979, the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan and President Jimmy Carter put a freeze on the US-USSR consulate program. Relations worsened when martial law was enacted in Poland.  The Soviets sealed up the building. Heavy metal shutters covered the great windows and piles of snow accumulated at the doorway where bejeweled guests once arrived knowing they would not be offered a cocktail.

The Hammond’s grand palazzo sat empty and neglected for 13 years with no heating nor maintenance. Water seeped into the walls and ceilings, paint peeled from the walls. When the Russians opened the doors for the first time in 1992 “everything was a big mess,” according to the consul general of the Russian Federation in New York, Ivan A. Kuznetsov.

In 1994 The New York Times’ Wendy Moonan said that “Though the Russians were repairing and updating the building’s infrastructure, the second floor with its grand public rooms, was in ruins.”

Moisture had seeped into the paneling, the basement was flooded, floorboards had warped and “the plumbing, furnace and elevators no longer functioned.”

Groups of sixteen Russian artisans were flown in from Moscow for 9- to 10-month shifts, living on the top floor at night and working on the house during the day. When one group would go back to Russia, another would arrive.

The president and publisher of Random House, Harold Evans, took on the restoration as a pet project. He cajoled American interests to donate time, fabrics, furniture and creativity in bringing the Hammond house back to life. Stanley Barrows, former chairman of the interior-design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology and decorators Mario Buatta and Albert Hadley threw themselves full-force into the mission. Diane Nixon and Robert Ashley of Ashley Studio donated three exclusive fabric designs for the library, ballroom and music room.

Twenty years after purchasing the Hammond mansion, the Russian Consulate opened officially in 1995. After two years of restoration the gilded paneling glinted from the lights of crystal chandeliers again and music, once so important to Emily Vanderbilt Sloane Hammond, was heard again.

The John Henry Hammond house is considered today one of Carrere & Hastings’ finest examples of residential architecture.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

St. Nicholas Cathedral - 15 East 97th Street

In 1894, a small congregation of Russian immigrants held fast to their traditional religious beliefs from their homeland. With little money, the group worshipped in a rented house on 2nd Avenue. By the turn of the century the congregation had grown to 300 and a permanent church was necessary.

The problem was money.

In 1899 a mid-block lot was purchased far uptown on 97th Street just off 5th Avenue where land was still relatively inexpensive. The congregation did not have the funds to erect a church. Dean Alexander Hotovitsky, the minister of the group, was put in charge of the fund raising. And he went right to the top.

Hotovitsky traveled to Moscow to plead his cause. One of the first contributors was Tsar Nicholas II who donated 5000 rubles (about $2,500 at the time).

Two years later the cornerstone of the 70 by 100 foot mission church was laid during an elaborate ceremony. Present was the crew of the Russian warship Retvizan which was being constructed in Philadelphia. The church was completed in 1903 on the designs of architect John Bergesen. The architect is most often said to be Russian; however he variously cited his birthplace as Sweden or Finland.

The new structure was a slice of old Moscow dropped onto 97th Street. If the congregation had no money when they started the project, the finished structure gave no hint of it. Exotic onion domes clustered above the red brick and limestone façade which was decorated in green, yellow and blue glazed tiles. Gilt bronze ribs stood out against the painted surfaces of the domes.

Inside was a blaze of traditional Russian decoration. Bright multicolored frescoes adorned the walls and ceilings, an immense crystal chandelier illuminated the gilt detailing and highly polished marble. To cross the threshold was to leave New York and enter Russia.

In 1904 the Russo-Japanese war was raging. On February 14 Bishop Tikon of North America rallied the parishioners in light of the demoralizing news accounts of the Russian situation. “Russia is best fitted to deal with the Tartan hordes and the pagan people in the Far East,” he said. Russia was fighting to prevent them from swooping down on Europe “in a flood that would drown our civilization and our holy reign...And with the help of God and Saint Nicholas she will win.”

The New York Times reported that “The worshippers who had appeared been stunned by the disasters to the Russian arms seemed to take courage at the words of the priest.”

Later, however, the Russian warship Retvizan whose crew had been present at the church’s cornerstone laying was sunk. The cross from the ship’s chapel was brought to St. Nicholas.

In 1905 the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church was moved from California to New York, making St. Nicholas the cathedral of the American church. In the meantime, things at home in Russia were heating up. The New York Times reported on February 19 that the priest of St. Nicholas received a package containing an empty bomb and a threatening note. A woman tipped police that a group of “Russian Nilhilists” were “planning the most devilish schemes of vengeance.”

“One of their schemes was to blow up the St. Nicholas Church because it had been built with funds provided by the Russian bureaucracy,” she said.

With the fall of the Tsar in 1917 as the Revolution raged on, the Communists took over the Church in Russia, filling the priesthood with supporters. Eventually the wave hit New York. In 1923 the Communists sent Rev. John. F. Kedrovsky to replace the Most Reverend Metropolitan Platon as bishop. The congregants carried Kedrovsky out of the cathedral and dropped him unceremoniously on the sidewalk.

A battle for the control of the church raged on with one faction, then the other, taking possession. A New York State court, in 1925, finally awarded the church to Kedrovsky. Police were necessary, however, to get him safely into the cathedral.

Refusing to follow whom they considered a Bolshevik, those parishioners loyal to Platon left. As The New York Times reported on November 21, 1926, “Trinity Episcopal Parish has turned over to Archbishop Platon, deposed Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church in America, and to the thousands of New York Russians who remained faithful to him, one-half of St. Augustine's Chapel, 105 East Houston Street, for a Russian Cathedral”

The struggle continued for another 26 years until, in 1952, the Supreme Court overturned the New York ruling. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote that “Under our constitution it is not open to the governments of this Union to reinforce the loyalty of their citizens by deciding who is the true exponent of their religion.”

In 2000, with the 100th anniversary of the building approaching, a $4 million restoration was initiated under the direction of architect Stephen Papadatos including re-gilding of the domes, façade cleaning and interior restoration. Another $1 million was spent on repair and repainting of the historic icons.

St. Nicholas Cathedral is an imposing presence on the Upper East Side, an unexpected slice of Russia on 97th Street.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The White Horse Tavern - 567 Hudson Street

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas came to New York to narrate his play Under Milk Wood in 1953.  Before long he was romantically involved with the play’s assistant director, Liz Reitell.  The two shared an apartment in the legendary Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street.

It was during that same year that Scottish poet Ruthven Todd changed the life of Dylan Thomas by bringing him to a blue collar bar in Greenwich Village – The White Horse Tavern.  Located on corner of Hudson and West 11th Streets, the tavern had opened in 1880 a few blocks from the Hudson River piers.  Generations of dock workers and laborers finished their day at its commodious bar crafted from a solid piece of mahogany under the pressed tin ceiling.  It immediately became Thomas’s drinking spot of choice.

His last visit to “The Horse,” as he called it, was on November 5, 1953.  Drinking whiskey with a gusto unusual even for him, he became ill and returned to Chelsea Hotel where he fell into a coma.  Four days later–just six days after his 40th birthday–Thomas died of chronic alcohol poisoning at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

The popular version of the story recounts his last words being, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies, I believe that is a record.”  The recollection of the bartender puts the number significantly lower and the authenticity of the quotation is doubtful.  Nevertheless, Thomas’s passing started a pilgrimage of poets and artists to the White Horse.

The stools where longshoremen drank ale and beer were suddenly taken over by the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison.  In the 1960s, Beat Generation poet Alan Ginsberg drank here, along with Frank O’Hara.

Later, artist Andy Warhol could be found here, as well as Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes.  On the night that John Belushi died, Dan Akroyd came in around closing time and bought drinks for the house.

With the celebrities came the celebrity watchers and The White Horse became a tourist destination.  The famous are protected here, though.  In 2004 owner Eddie Brennan told The Villager that the staff members “take care of them, don’t make a fuss and don’t let anyone bother them.”

Photo by Dunmore Throop

Through it all the White Horse has remained remarkably unchanged.  Any vintage photograph of the tavern looks nearly identical to one shot today.  The three-story Victorian vernacular style building is as unpretentious on the exterior as it is inside.  In a surprising reversal of convention its front facade on Hudson Street--normally the side meant to impress--is clapboard while the 11th Street side façade is brick.

The inconspicuous tavern gained celebrity the night a renowned poet drank his last whiskey here.  But the real success of the White Horse Tavern lays in its atmosphere and its philosophy.  As Brennan put it, “We’ve got drinkers and we take care of them.”

historic photographs from the NYPL Collection