Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Stunning Wilderness: John James Audubon saves the birds and creates a rare 19th century masterpiece

Happy Easter!  Audubon's Golden Eagle with its bizarrely depicted bunny prize.  Notice the small man in the background. That's Audubon himself as 'an American woodsman', the only appearance he makes in this series of watercolors.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the latest show at the New-York Historical Society -- Audubon's Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II) -- is about birds.  It's in the title, after all.

The gallery, painted sky blue, is filled with them, most in studied, formal poses, trapped in elaborate picture frames, a static zoo for slightly unusual animals.  You've certainly seen the work of John James Audubon and might be familiar with his style.  His creatures are sometimes arched and twisted around a frame in a way that seems otherworldly.

But take your focus off the individual subjects and look around. You're basically standing in the middle of one of the greatest publishing achievements in history.

The Birds of America is an ambitious book of wondrous art, published in sections between 1827 and 1838 and collected in a double-elephant-folio (almost 40 inches tall).  The watercolors here are studies for the original edition of Birds, one of the most treasured books of the 19th century, a landmark of publishing and a charmingly dated approach to animal preservation.

This is the Historical Society's second Audubon show, this time mostly featuring images of water fowl. (Part three will come next year.)  The individual birds themselves may either bewitch or repel you -- depending on your tolerance for 19th century scientific formality -- but the overall display is surprisingly moving.  You're standing here in an age where the published tome itself has become an endangered species.

Audubon was one of the most esteemed New Yorkers of the early 19th century, although as the era's greatest naturalist, he was rarely in one place for long. (His family roots in France frequently took him back overseas where he was widely hailed.)  He owned an upper Manhattan estate Minniesland where his descendants lived for decades.  The watercolors you see in this exhibit were stored at Minniesland for decades; his wife Lucy often bringing them out to the delight of dinner guests.

 Audubon Terrace sits on most of that land today.  Audubon is buried nearby at Trinity Cemetery.

A vista of Audubon's home and the Hudson River. You can see this particular print in NYHS's exhibit:

Hardly any of The Birds of America depicts any creature he would have seen from his porch.  The exhibit takes you along on his travels, constantly on the move over the Atlantic Ocean on the search for specimens. And we get to meet some of his collaborators, including his sister-in-law Maria Martin, who contributes some of watercolors in the collection.

His drive to preserve seems especially prescient today.  In 1829 he wrote  "When I see that . . . the vast herds of elks, deer and buffaloes which once pastured . . . in these valleys . . . have ceased to exist; that the woods are fast disappearing under the axe by day, and the fire by night . . . when I remember that these extraordinary changes have all taken place in the short period of twenty years, I pause, wonder, and, although I know all to be fact, can scarcely believe its reality."

Little did he know that it would be the book itself -- not just the birds within his own great masterpiece -- that would now seem to be similarly imperiled.

You may the most transfixed with the bound edition of The Birds of America in the middle of the gallery.  Behind glass, its dimensions give it the appearance of something you might find at the Cloisters museum.

Audubon's Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of the Complete Flock) on display at the New-York Historical Society, until May 26, 2014.  Visit their website for more information.

All images courtesy New-York Historical Society

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Neon Beautiful: Images of New York at Night 1946

"In New York the first lights start to come on at night long before the last light has gone out of the sky." 

 In 1939, a young Paris-born photographer named Andreas Feininger moved from his home in Germany to the United States. He took a job at Life Magazine in 1943, a few years after the publication's retooling by publisher Henry Luce into a showcase for photojournalism.

Feininger would become one of America's great photographers of the 20th century. He didn't document places. He transformed them. In the era before frequent photo manipulation, Feininger could make the ordinary mythical. He could photograph a building and make it look like a rocket ship.  His vision was painterly, finding the iconic within the simple. And when he photographed extraordinary things -- like his favorite subject, New York City -- the result was often transcendent.

On August 5, 1946, Life ran a photo essay by Feininger called "New York At Night."  It's extraordinary for several reasons.  Most Life photography up until this time -- in fact, most Feininger's finest work --  was in black-and-white.

In fact that issue is all black-and-white -- except the advertisements and "New York at Night."

Just a few years before, New York was a darkened city at night due to wartime precautions.  But in the summer of 1946, the city was again abuzz.  Color photography itself had seen startling innovations but it was still a dazzling rarity then.

A revitalized New York City rendered in color prints by one of Life's brightest talents?  It was the closest a print publication could come to conjuring magic.

Here's several images from "New York at Night," courtesy Life Magazine.  You can view the entire issue here for some context. (It's worth a read, especially the article on a kids radio station!)

You can click into each image for greater detail.  And see if you can identify where in Midtown each of these photographs were taken!

And some music to put you in the mood, a song that was near the top of the charts in the summer of 1946:

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A short history of New York City's various Titanic memorials

From a 1912 handbill, drumming up support for a proper memorial. (Courtesy Seaman's Institute)

In our podcast on the South Street Seaport, we forgot to mention a very interesting little landmark to the area -- the Titanic Memorial, a 60-foot white lighthouse that sits in the little plaza at Fulton and Water Streets.

This was no mere decorative lighthouse as it seems today.  For much of its history, it was an operational light source, a beacon over the East River.  Below: The memorial's first home, atop the Seamen's Church Institute (Courtesy NYPL)

The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, killing more than 1,500 people from all social classes.  The loss shook society to its core.  Among the victims were prominent New York businessmen and benefactors such as John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim.  As New Yorkers mourned the loss of loved ones, they immediately funneled their grief into the building of memorials, the physical remembrance of a disaster that left virtually no trace behind.

Mayor William Jay Gaynor gathered community leaders to City Hall in May 1912 to solicit ambitious ideas of the new memorial.   The Evening World attributes one idea for a lighthouse to engineer Carroll Livingston Riker, who suggested "the lighthouse should be located at some perilous point on the coast, illuminated by a most powerful light and with a great fog horn that may be heard many miles as part of its equipment."

Meanwhile, a less dramatic lighthouse memorial (pictured above) was funded by J.P. Morgan and planned for the top of the new Seamen's Church Institute at 25 South Street.  The lighthouse was equipped with a time ball which was lowered at noon to help distant sailors adjust their equipment.  (This same sort of ball is affixed to the top of One Times Square in 1908, dropped every year at ring in the new year.)

The lighthouse memorial was dedicated on the first anniversary of the disaster with many family and friends of victims in attendance.

The New York Times claims the lighthouse and ball drop features atop the Institute "were simply features of the existing plan, relabeled as a memorial." [source]  However it became New York's most prominent remembrance of the Titanic disaster after all when, over at City Hall, nobody could make up their mind on a truly grand memorial.  (All you need to know about the city's failed efforts is illustrated in this 1912 headline on one meeting -- "One Man Made 18 Speeches.")

Meanwhile, there were other Titanic memorials being planned in other parts of the city.  In Greenwich Village, in the Washington Square studios of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the artist began work on a sculpture for a national memorial in Washington D.C.

She displayed a model for the memorial in February 1916 that drew gasps from society women.  "[T]he present figure with its pedestal extends from floor to ceiling and catches interesting lights that add to the highly dramatic conceptions."  [source] At left: A study of the Titanic memorial which was displayed at Whitney's Village studio. (Courtesy AAA/Whitney Museum)

Whitney's triumphant statue --of a figure with arms outstretched (not unlike Kate Winslet's pose in the film Titanic) -- was completed in 1918 but not installed in Washington until 1930 due to waterfront construction delays.  A

Yet another Titanic memorial was planned in June 1912 to honor philanthropists Isador and Ida Strauss near their home on the Upper West Side. A competition was held in 1913 for aspiring sculptors, with Augustus Lukeman's pondering nymph the eventual winner. The statue and the newly named Straus Park were formally dedicated on April 15, 1915.

Featured at the dedication ceremony were 800 children who had been helped by Straus' Educational Alliance in the Lower East Side.

Below: Dedication of Straus Square and its curious monument. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

As for the Titanic Lighthouse Memorial?  It sat dutifully atop the Seamen's Institute for decades, its green light a welcome beacon to those entering the harbor.  By the 1950s, shipping no longer came through the area of New York's waterfront, and the Institute eventually sold its building.

The lighthouse was donated to the South Street Seaport Museum in 1968, then a budding institution formed just a couple years prior to protect the historic structures of the area.  For a time, the lighthouse actually sat on the waterfront before relocating back to its present home in 1976, in a park partially funded by Exxon Oil.

There was one other memorial to the Titanic disaster -- the Wireless Operators Memorial at Battery Park.  This bronze cenotaph and fountain was dedicated in 1915 to nine intrepid employees -- "wireless heroes" -- who died on the Titanic and in other ocean disasters.

Wrote J. Andrew White in 1915: "It is an eloquent reminder of a tradition that has grown out of the brand of courage which seeks no precedent, which, founded on the heroic action of a mere boy, has been written in the indelible annals of the men who go down to the sea in ships."

But don't go looking for the memorial today.  It's been in storage since 2005. Will we ever see it again?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The naming of Times Square -- 110 years ago today!

Looking south towards the Times Building, 1904 and 2013: Top pic courtesy Library of Congress; Bottom pic courtesy nyclovesnyc

From the New York Times, April 9, 1904:

"Mayor [George B.] McClellan yesterday signed the resolution adopted by the Board of Aldermen on Tuesday last changing the name of Long Acre Square to that of Times Square.  This follows out the recommendation of the Rapid Transit Commission and of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, which is to operate the subway, and it is intended by the Rapid Transit Commission at its next meeting to call the subway station at Broadway and Forty-Second Street Times station.

The resolution with Mayor McClellan has signed becomes operative at once, and authorizes the President of the Borough of Manhattan to take such steps in the matter as may be proper and necessary.  This includes the alteration of street signs.  Times Square takes in the triangle on which the new building of The New York Times is situated, and the name applies to the entire section between Forty-Second and Forty-Seventh Streets, Broadway and Seventh Avenue."

You can check this entire 1904 issue of the New York Times on their snazzy, endlessly fascinating new TimesMachine, which gives you access to their entire array of back issues.

Below: The illustration of Times Square which ran in the April 9th issue:

Below: A letter written by publisher Adolph Ochs to the New York Herald (Courtesy New York Public Library)

"I am pleased to say that Times Square was named without any effort or suggestion on the part of the Times.  It was brought about by the necessity of naming the Subway Station in the Times building something other than Forty-second Street or Broadway, as there were other stations both on Forty-second Street and Broadway......."

"The old name of Long Acre Square meant nothing, signified nothing."

Newspaper content courtesy the New York Times

Friday, April 4, 2014

The history of the South Street Seaport: A robust story of economic power, historic preservation, rat fights and fish guts

The daily bustle at the Fulton Fish Market, 1936, photographed by Berenice Abbott (NYPL)

PODCAST  The glory of early New York came from its role as one of the world's great ports.  Today the South Street Seaport is a lasting tribute to that seafaring heritage, a historical district beneath the Brooklyn Bridge that contains some of New York City's oldest buildings.

But there are many secrets here along the cobblestone streets.  Schermerhorn Row, the grand avenue of counting houses more than two centuries old, is built atop of landfill.  Historic Water Street once held a seedy concentration of brothels and saloons. Not to mention a very vibrant rat pit! And the Fulton Fish Market, the neighborhood's oldest customer tradition, once fell into the river.

The modern South Street Seaport, a preservation construct of concerned citizens, become popular with tourists during the 1980s but saw severe damage during Hurricane Sandy.  It's now the subject of some potentially dramatic changes.  How much of an adherence to the traditions of the past will determine the Seaport's future?

ALSO: The FDR Drive -- How it almost went below the Seaport!

To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #163 South Street Seaport

A painting of the Empress of China, the vessel probably most responsible for the growth of New York's trading power. (Courtesy nyhistorywalks)

Peck Slip, providing ferry service to Brooklyn. The very first ferry service to Brooklyn was launched from this spot over two hundred years before the era depicted in this image. (NYPL)

South Street, circa 1892, via stereograph (courtesy Library of Congress)

A different world: The glory of South Street in 1890 and 1900, respectively, still a non-stop churn of unloading, delivering and transport, even as the Brooklyn Bridge in the distance marks big changes to come for the neighborhood. (courtesy NYPL and Library of Congress)

The Fulton Fish Market, as photographed by Berenice Abbot, November 26, 1935 (NYPL)

Fulton and Water Streets, 1975 (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

[Fulton and Water Streets.]

Richard Haas' trompe l'oeil excellently masking a Con Edision substation. (Museum of City of New York)

[Trompe l'oeil concealing a Con Ed substation at 237-257 Front Street, and the Jasper Ward house, 45 Peck Slip.]

Pier 17, the ambitious 1980s project that transformed this once-vital economic center into a viable tourist attraction.  But it didn't exactly appeal to large masses of regular New Yorkers. (Pic courtesy Wired New York)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A primer before this Sunday's Revolutionary War series Turn

Courtesy AMC

This Sunday (9pm EST) marks the debut of AMC's new Revolutionary War drama Turn, documenting the beginnings of George Washington's mysterious spy circuit The Culper Ring and starring Jamie Bell as Washington's spy leader Abraham Woodhull.

Follow along with me on Twitter this Sunday as I throw in a few historical details related to the action on the show (but I promise not to get to spoiler-y in case you're over on that other channel watching Game of Thrones!)

Then on April 13 comes the return of Mad Men!

The show is set in 1778.  If you're interested in some background on this period in American history, give our podcast 'Life In British New York 1776-1783' a listen.  You can play it below or download it from iTunes for free:


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Decorating the Flatiron Building with cannons and silver coins

At the very first-floor corner of the Flatiron Building once sat the trusty United Cigar Store.  Being so striking a location in such an unusual building, the cigar store was often decorated occasions.

For instance, one hundred years ago today (April 1, 1914), the windows were filled with 7,150 silver dollars as part of a promotion by the New York Tribune for a newspaper quiz.

"The money is in shining, new silver dollars, and the glittering pile possessed marked magnetic qualities, drawing thousands of shoppers and business men.  The situation of the window gave Broadway and Fifth Avenue equal and simultaneous opportunities to gaze at the treasure." [source]

Something more unusual arrived atop the little cigar store a few years later.  With America's entry into World War I, the patriotic owner of the cigar store donated the space for a recruiting center for the U.S. Navy.  Atop the store were decorative flags and replicas of naval cannons.  A war-stamps salesman would stand astride the cannons and beckon pedestrians to purchases war stamps.

The flamboyant show had a profound effect, as illustrated in this front-page anecdote from March 20, 1918

For a time, the cigar store was one of New York City's centers for the war effort, an ideal and attractive spot in one of New York's busiest intersections.  During one such campaign drive, society ladies operated the booths inside while the military band played on the roof, between the cannons.  During the day, there were various demonstrations on front of the cigar store, including one for the Browning machine gun!

To give you a little bit more context of how dramatic this all was, down the street in Union Square sat a wooden Naval battleship, the U.S.S. Recruit.  (Read more about New York's World War I efforts in my article last year on the history of the wartime doughnut.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Recalling the opening of Roseland Ballroom at the start of Prohibition, the 'phantasmal' atmosphere, the private dancer

The Roseland Ballroom closes its doors next month on April 7th after a round of Lady Gaga concerts.  The storied big band venue -- the 'world's foremost ballroom cafe' -- originally opened on December 31, 1919 at 1658 Broadway (at 50th/51st Street).  In the 1950s, it moved to its present location on 52nd Street, a former ice and roller-skating rink.

On the surface, opening a dance club a few weeks before the start of Prohibition doesn't seem to be especially wise.  But New Yorkers ate it up.  After all, there would eventually be hundreds of speakeasies surrounding it!"

From the January 17, 1920 edition of the New York Evening World, headlined 'Broadway Finds Joy In Roseland':

"The shadow of the camel, i.e. the presence of Prohibition, has not robbed Broadway of all its pleasures.  The dancers still find a way to have a good time, as may be attested by the thousands who attend the sessions at Roseland, the new dancing place at Broadway and 51st Street."

During the '20s, the Roseland was the scene of many dance marathons for prize money.  In 1923, when the city reminded him that state codes authorized only twelve-hour endurance contests, he arranged for competitors to be whisked away on a boat -- called the Roseland -- to complete the contest.

The Roseland took aim at dismissing the blues at the height of the Great Depression.   "At Roseland Ballroom, 'Old Man Depression' will be tried and found guilty of murdering Prosperity and sentenced to death.  A scaffold will be erected for him and his 'death' will be a signal for merry-making." [from the December 31, 1931, New York Times]

At right: Regular Roseland bandleader Fletcher Henderson (courtesy NYPL)

The Roseland was never the Rainbow Room.  During the 1940s it was nicknamed 'the poor man's nightclub' which apparently didn't stop it from being "the most famous dance hall in the world," according to the New Yorker in 1942.  (It was also, back when it opened, a whites-only establishment.)  Always popular, the Roseland of the 1940s was charming and sometimes mysterious, regimental and rarely lewd.  Its owner Louis Brecker always referred to it as "the home of refined dancing."

"People accustomed to night-club life often find the atmosphere slightly phantasmal. The ceiling is hung with dark-blue muslin studded with tiny electric bulbps give a night-sky effect. The roomis lit by neon lamps, graduating in shade from deep pink to lemon yellow. In their dim rays knots of patrons drift to and from the dance floor with a curiously delicate air, fluorescing a bit as they go." [New Yorker, 1942]

Roseland dancers, 1941 (Library of Congress)

The Roseland was also known for hostesses (or taxi dancers) who would dance with gentlemen for $1.50 per half hour.  They were beautiful and well behaved, never drinking alcohol if their patrons offered. And they never solicited business, sitting politely in a roped-off dias by the dance floor, waiting for an interested man to come along.

"Each hostess tried to build up a clientele by thoughtful attention to masculine interests and hobbies. Many hostesses read books in order to increase their conversational range," according to the New Yorker. "[E]lderly gentlemen who like to surround themselves with hostesses, sometimes  [bought] out the entire platoon for the evening."

The hostess/taxi dancer, hugely popular during the World War II era, had mostly faded out by the time the Roseland moved to its present location at 52nd Street.

 Here's a Henderson tribute to the venue, entitled "Rose Room (In Sunny Roseland)":