Friday, July 30, 2010

Podcast Rewind: The Pan Am Building



A special illustrated version of our podcast on the Pan Am Building (Episode #61) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed.

Today it's the Met Life Building. It's been called the ugliest building in New York City. It sits like a monolith behind one of the city's most enduring icons Grand Central Terminal. But it's got some secrets you may not know about. In this podcast, we scale the heights of this misunderstood marvel of modern architecture.

Download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or you can listen to the cleaned up audio version right here: The Pan Am Building

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Spoiler alert! Angelina Jolie and a Park Avenue treasure


ABOVE: St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church on Park Avenue in 1928, ten years after the first service was held in its scarcely completed chapel and eighty-two years before Angelina Jolie plays the title role in the action thriller "Salt" where she blows part of it up with explosives.

You can find a nicely written short history on St. Bart's at NYCAGO.com, the New York branch of the American Guild for Organists. (Picture above is from there as well) Why would organists be necessarily fascinated? Apparently, St. Bart's organ -- which, er, is also blown up in the movie -- is one of the largest in the world.

Before this lovely Byzantine palace existed on the newly developed Park Avenue, the congregation had an even grander home down at Madison Avenue and 44th Street (below), designed by James Renwick in 1872 and greatly modified by Stanford White, as a present from the family of Cornelius Vanderbilt. For the current structure, architect Bertram Goodhue was required by the church to use elements from the original building. I'll bet you can guess from comparing the photographs what some of those were.



Photo above from the Library of Congress. Caption says its from 1918, but I suspect it's older than that.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Union Square and the demise of 'Dead Man's Curve'



The photo above shows the southwest corner of Union Square in the year 1906. For many years prior, this corner was the scene of several brutal accidents between cable cars and pedestrians. When the Metropolitan Traction Company (now doing business as the powerful New York City Railway Company) ripped out the cable lines and replaced them with streetcar tracks in the early 1900s, New Yorkers hoped that troubles at the so-called 'Dead Man's Curve' would likewise diminish.

Broadway and 14th Street, during the late 19th century, has always been seen as "New York's Most Dangerous Crossing" (according to a Harpers Weekly article). But even in the new century, this morbid corner could never quite shake its reputation. "McGowan and Keenan Narrowly Escape Death At 'Dead Man's Curve" shouted an Evening World headline from February 15, 1906, reporting a serious accident here involving two major city officials, one (Patrick McGowan) the head of the Board of Alderman.

Getting rid of the cable cars reduced -- but did not eliminate -- the problems posed by the heavily trafficked, sharp corner along New York's most famous avenue. Grim accidents kept occurring here, such as this one in September 1908: 'Legs Are Crushed...at Dead Man's Curve'. One source posits an interesting theory: with the district to the west still considered Ladies Mile, New York's prime shopping district, male drivers (as they would have mostly been at this time) became distracted at this difficult corner by lively female shoppers.

Fortunately, it seems reputation can be the wonderful deterrent. While other cities would develop their own deadly traffic curves -- and apply the nickname 'dead man's curve' to those unfortunate places -- New York would see fewer accidents at Broadway and 14th Street in the following decades.

One author in 1917 remarked that the corner's "perils are now outdone on every street and road since the advent of the automobile." In 1930, all of Union Square would be redesigned as subway lines were constructed underneath, and traffic was helpfully reduced. Most shopping had moved to Herald Square and Fifth Avenue, so there were fewer alleged distractions anyway.

A witness to all the grim accidents at this corner was, oddly enough, Abraham Lincoln. His sculptural likeness had stood here since 1870, a work by Henry Kirke Brown, surrounded by an austere bronze fence. With the redesign in the 1930s, Lincoln was moved away from the bloody corner and moved into the northern end of the park, where he still stands today.


Photo from the New York Times

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The City Island Monorail, easily the worst ride in NYC



Taking their lives in their hands: riders of the City Island Monorail

On Friday's podcast, I briefly talked about the Pelham Park & City Island Railroad (or, in the parlance of the day, Monoroad), an actual monorail system, three miles in length, linking the small fishing community of City Island with the Bronx mainland. This slender and awkward looking conveyance (with its "yellow, cigar shaped car", you can see it a couple posts below), departing on its very first trip on July 17, 1910 crammed with over 100 passengers, promptly fell over, injuring dozens.

"Passengers were thrown one on top of the other on the floor, so that they lay literally in layers," according to the Times. Not helping matters, the conductor locked the doors after the accident for fear passengers would touch the electrified rail, and the injured had to be passed through a couple small, open windows.

The monorail was being piloted by its creator Howard Hansel Tunis who had trumpeted his technology of a single ground rail with two elevated (and electrified) side railings. Some in the press had seen the monorail idea as being superior to the newly build subway train. However it had taken his Monoroad financiers almost two years to raise the money, and the construction of usable track had happened hastily -- and with remarkable incompetence.

The 'monoroad' was to be a technological improvement of the horsecar line that serviced the route before 1910, picking up passengers at the long-vanished Bartow Station, located in Pelham Bay Park. One hundred years ago, New Yorkers took day trips up to enjoy the small, sandy beaches of City Island; most of that beach area is unavailable for bathers today, and anyway, Robert Moses sculpted a far grander Orchard Beach out of landfill in the 1930s, a more suitable option.

Despite the inaugural disaster, the City Island monorail system gave it another go a few months later, on October 12, 1910. On this, its second trip, the monorail hit an automobile, smashed it "to splinters" and injuring the driver and a passenger. They eventually seemed to work out the kinks, and the monorail began regular operation, although its irregular schedule and its inadequate connections to other lines never impressed local residents.

Its poor reputation may have held City Island back as a more popular place for recreation. An article on City Island from 1913 , while singing the monorail's praises, inaccurately reported that people had been killed in the inaugural accident.

Its fate was sealed in 1914 when the powerful Third Avenue Railway bought it up, opened a traditional trolley line alongside it and unceremoniously closed the monorail by 1919.

Map above from Historic Pelham. Top photo from Wiki Commons.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A TV shout-out to a debonair palace for independent women


postcard from Old New York

With Mad Men making its return last night on AMC, myself and many other bloggers (like the fabulous Natasha Vargas-Cooper and the folks over at the City Room) are scouring the episodes for fun New York City history references. One of my favorite buildings in the city made an appearance (or at least a notable mention) when, after a blind date, Don Draper drops his actress lady friend off at her home at the Barbizon Hotel for Women at 140 E. 63rd Street.

The Barbizon was a high-end complex for actresses and models, "a combined charm school and dormitory," "the city’s elite dollhouse" according to Vanity Fair, offering single woman a luxurious address and a home base to pursue career and network. Some of its inhabitants, naturally, would go on to become major stars -- Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Cloris Leachman, Liza Minelli. Little Edie, of 'Grey Gardens' fame, lived here from 1947 to 1952 while trying to break into show business.

I personally love the dark grown, arch-heavy exterior, which the AIA calls a "romantic, neo-Gothic tawny brick charmer." The building opened to men in 1981 and, as the Barbizon 63, is still a rather swanky address.

The Barbizon, however, was not known for sumptuous living back in the day. Apparently, a lady was just supposed to be grateful to be admitted here. The rooms were "not luxurious," according to a biography on Kelly, "and a new girl's first impression might have been that her austere quarters resembled a convent cell or a house of correction." Kelly lived here as a teenager in 1947, quietly reading or having tea in the Barbizon's dining area.

The building was designed in 1927 by the curiously named design firm of Murgatroyd & Ogden, who specialized in brick hotels and apartment complexes with quirky flair. Two years later, their Hotel Governor Clinton opened across the street from Pennsylvania Station.

(New Yorker ad from 1966 courtesy Ephemeral New York)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Cable cars, trolleys and monorails: Moving around on New York's forgotten transit options



ABOVE: The Boynton Bicycle Railway, combining the best of the locomotive and the spinning wheel. This narrow little hot wheel took riders on a short ride through Coney Island.

For the third part of our Bowery Boys On The Go summer series, looking back at the history of New York City public transportation, it's a short ride on the long gone, forgotten methods of getting around the city. The streets were mostly dominated by horse-based transport, but this was smelly and slow -- not to mention awful on the animals. So the city experimented with new ways of moving the masses: by cable car (exported form San Francisco), the trolley and the monorail.

Along the way, you'll find out the connection between the cable car and New York's most famous art-house movie theater, discover the origins behind the name of a classic New York sports team, and hear the contributions of a man known as 'the black Edison'.

ALSO: Find out about what may be the world's worst monorail technology!

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: Cable Cars, Trolleys and Monorails




Click onto photographs for a larger view
___________________________________________________________

Horse Drawn: New York City before the 1870s simply could not have survived without horse power, and the streets were filled with thousands of the animals pulling streetcars, omnibuses, carts and basically everything else that moved. As a result, life for a horse was pretty much appalling. Life span was relatively short. Although the city designated places along the waterfront to dispose of carcasses, it wasn't unheard of to leave bodies in the street. This classic (but disturbing) photo from 1900, captioned 'Close of a Career', illustrates the absurdity. (Courtesy Shorpy)




The first cable car system in New York was actually a steam-engine hybrid that ran over the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. Engineers didn't believe a regular steam locomotive could travel up an incline to get onto the bridge, so this dual steam/cable method was created. The powerhouses, pictured here, were situated under the approaches. (Read more about it here.)



Cable Vision: How many times have the streets around Union Square been dug up? Here's one of the very first times, in 1891, as workmen install a cable line for New York's very first cable car system. Notable about this particular stretch is the fact that this would become part of the notorious Dead Man's Curve, where cars would speed around the northwest corner of the park. (Courtesy NYPL)



The frequent and frustrating traffic predicament on New York streets, a congested cluster of machines and horses, sometimes at a standstill. This picture, from 1892, depicts Broadway between Union Square and Madison Square.



From an 1894 Life Magazine illustration, echoing the public sentiment over New York's wily, dangerous cable car system. (Courtesy NYPL)




A video look at the Brooklyn trolley system, which by the 1930s had become the standard method of transit for most residents of the borough.



A map detailing the vastness of the Brooklyn trolley system by the 1930s, by this point a component of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation.



Inventor Granville Woods debuted his 'multiple distributing station system' -- a sort of 'wireless' trolley system using electromagnetic induction -- for the American Engineering Company in February 1892. Unfortunately, Woods had to sue the company for any sort of credit. In fact, this article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of the trial doesn't even mention his name.



Monofail: The first riders of the monorail system provided by the Pelham Park and City Island Railroad were greeted with a nightmare voyage culminating in the entire car falling over on its side. "Flimsy Structure Supporting It Gives Way and Many Are Badly Hurt," cries the New York Times. Despite this not insignificant hiccup, the monorail operated for a few years before being replaced with a trolley system.



On Track: Looking down on Times Square from 1905, taken from the top of the Times Building. I'm putting this hear for a bird's eye view on what the streets of New York looked like, grooved with trolley rails. You can still see several horse carts too, although most horses had been taken off of city streets by this time. (Please click on the photo for a close-up view)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Brooklyn residents, beware the dangers of 'the wheel'!


"The bicycle path from Prospect Park, Brooklyn, to Coney Island." Illustration above an 1896 issue of Munsey's magazine (Courtesy NYPL)

You have been warned! From an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, dated May 11, 1896:

"Several thousand men and women rode on bicycles in this neighborhood yesterday. Possibly twenty of them were injured in one way or another. It is known that one died from heart disease. Physicians have cautioned men with weak hearts against bicycling.

Mr. Coe of Quincy Street thought that his heart was strong enough to ride. But he was mistaken. The heat and the exertion were too much for him and he was taken home dead in an ambulance. Another man who was run over by a grocer's wagon in New York on Saturday evening died in a hospital. His friends had warned him of the danger of wheeling. But he had not heeded them....."

Better yet, the article continues, best not to even leave your house!

"It would not be true to say that there is no danger in wheeling. It is not possible for a man to stir out of his house without exposing himself to danger. The chances in one's favor are so great that one seldom thinks of the risk that he takes in the street. Horses run away, buildings fall down, mad dogs rush through the street, lunatics explode firearms, trolley cars run away, manhole covers blow off, trolley wires break, bolts fall from the elevated railroad structure and a thousand and one other things happen which injure and kill people.

The man who suffers from any of these things could not have escaped, on a wheel or on foot. The wheelman is exposed to them the same as every other person. the only accident which is peculiar to wheelmen is that caused by a breakdown of his wheel."

Read the original article here.

Other things that Brooklyn cyclists had to deal with: ghosts

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

History in the Making: The Long, Forgotten Trail Edition



Abandoned railroad tracks dart along the cobblestones of the Brooklyn waterfront. Walker Evans 1960 (Courtesy LIFE images)

Mad Men starts on Sunday, speeding the story up to Thanksgiving 1964. What was going on in the city then? [City Room]

You think it's hot down in the subway today? Imagine what it was like several decades ago -- without air conditioning. [Ephemeral New York]

Last week they found a wooden ship last week while excavating on the site of the World Trade Center. But finding old ships while digging around downtown is nothing new; they found an even largest vessel -- and intact -- on January 1982 while digging around a construction site at 175 Water Street. (Incidentally, 175 Water Street is the home of troubled insurance firm AIG. Talk about a sunk ship!) [Institute of Nautical Archaeology]

Forgotten New York takes a walk around a Bronx waterfront neighborhood that features such streets names as Ohm Avenue, Ampere Avenue and Research Avenue. [Forgotten New York]

Showers for street horses! [Gothamist]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Old Willett's Wharf on the East River promenade



ABOVE: Looking south along a newly opened section of the East River Park promenade, which the city debuted over the July 4th holiday. It now extends down underneath the Williamsburg Bridge and continues slightly south. This section along the water has been closed for what seems like eternity, but the city projects the entire promenade will be open by next summer.

There used to be a dock on this very spot called Willett's Wharf, named for nearby Willett Street (now Bialystoker Place) -- which is itself named for everybody's favorite post-Revolutionary mayor of New York, Marinus Willett.

Monday, July 19, 2010

'Cropsey': urban legend intersects with unspeakable crime at an abandoned Staten Island children's institution

Above: Willowbrook State School in central Staten Island. Looks innocent enough....

BOWERY BOYS RECOMMEND is an occasional feature where we find an unusual movie or TV show that -- whether by accident or design -- uniquely captures an era of New York City as well as any reference or history book. Other entries in this series can be found here.

Mix a dangerous, fenced-in set of crumbling ruins with the imaginations of children, and the result is an urban legend. Throw in a series of real-life events more horrifying than anything a child would ever dare to conjure, and you have 'Cropsey'.

A chilling glimpse into some horrific Staten Island history, the documentary 'Cropsey', which briefly played at IFC Center earlier this month, is now available on Video On Demand on Time-Warner Cable. The film looks at a series of vile murders on Staten Island during the '70s and '80s and how they may relate to the closing of a disturbing old medical institution and at least one ghastly crime that may have occurred in its abandoned underground tunnels.

Cranking up the tinkling piano and effective Blair-Witch style photography of rotted buildings and dark forests, directors and Staten Island natives Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman present the murders and the subsequent capture of the suspect Andrew Rand through a veil of collected memory. Cropsey was the name of a generic killer figure -- wielding an ax, or a hook hand, take your pick -- woven by slumber-party storytellers and recounted to children. A basic urban legend, but rendered all the stranger for the events that actually did occur near the site of the Willowbrook State School, an institution for children with mental retardation in central Staten Island that was closed in 1987 due to wicked abuses to patients.

Below: Andre Rand in custody


Today the ruins of Willowbrook stand as part of the Staten Island Greenbelt, fenced away and inaccessible. Rand was a former Willowbrook employee who lived on the grounds of the institution after it was closed, and was apparently not alone there. In 1987 when a young girl Jennifer Schweiger goes missing, Rand is taken into custody. Then investigators make a grisly discovery on the grounds of Willowbrook, leading to a host of unsolved cases of child abduction.

The film links together these disappearances from several neighborhoods and attempts to place them into the larger context of Staten Island history -- the idea of the borough as 'dumping ground' for most of its modern existence, and a place developing against the grain from the rest of New York City.

Along the way you get allusions to the Son of Sam murders and Satanic cults, accusations of necrophilia (!), bizarre handwritten letters from Rand to the filmmakers, and dated New York news footage with Ernie Anastos and Geraldo Rivera, all utilized to give you the serious creeps. "For my safety, I will not go on camera," says a nun interviewed about a crazy Satanic cult. Like other assertions made in the film, the interview has little bearing on the case and is used primarily to concoct a spooky atmosphere.

The film brought back a lot of my own childhood fears; who didn't grow up with similar ghost stories about an abandoned house in their neighborhood, a building left in ruin ripe for a fiction told by flash light? 'Cropsey' recounts true historical events -- several disappearances unsolved to this day -- with that same sense of chilling seriousness.

Catherine on our Facebook page had this review: "I saw a screening of this film... it's a great topic that deserved a better treatment. They do a great injustice to the residents of the institution by repeatedly referring to them as mental patients, and do nothing to shed any light of fact on the urban legend. But if it piques anyone's interest in the topic, then I guess it did a service."

Look for 'Cropsey' on your cable's Video On Demand listings. Click here for further information or on the official film website. Visit Forgotten New York to take a snow-covered tour of the Farm Colony ruins along side the main building at Willowbrook.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Xenon and the strange journey of a Broadway theater: Noel Coward, Fellini, porn, disco, 'Cabaret', Dame Edna



You know it's a good night at Xenon when you're drunk on the dance floor, and all of a sudden, the actress Valerie Perrine and the Village People appear (source)

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER To get you in the mood for the weekend, on occasional Fridays we'll be featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse clubs of the mid-1990s. Past entries can be found here.

LOCATION: XenonTimes Square, 43th Street and Broadway, Manhattan
In operation 1978-84

THIS, AT LEFT, IS HENRY MILLER. Clearly this is not the Henry Miller you more popularly know. This Henry Miller would have never produced Tropic of Cancer. But his major contribution to the American stage would bring New Yorkers an iconic work of French cinema, a world famous theatrical revival, and one of the most successful Studio 54 knockoffs ever.

Miller was a minor theatrical star in the age of Sarah Bernhardt, who began dabbling as a director and stage manager at the same time that theater on 42nd Street began to flourish in New York. He became an early, respectable presence; from an early biography: "It was a foregone conclusion that a Henry Miller production must be in the best tradition of the theater."

His timing was exquisite as well. The Broadway district in the 1910s was in full swing, with excitement at all hours. His patron (and progressive, feminist icon) Elizabeth Milbank Anderson assisted him in opening a stage in 1918 at 124 W. 43rd Street, a prime location near the theaters of Oscar Hammerstein, Klaw & Erlanger and Florenz Ziegfeld. The old New York Times building was half a block away, the nexus for New Years Eve celebrations for over a decade. Across the street rose the Hotel Metropole with its bustling late night antics; a few years earlier, in 1912, you could have stood in Miller's lot and watched the bloody mob hit of gambler Herman Rosenthal -- possibly ordered by New York cop Charlie Becker. (You can hear more about that in our Case Files of the NYPD podcast.)

There were no hits at Henry Miller's theater, however, not the lucrative kind at least. In fact, the first show, The Fountain of Youth, was an unmitigated flop, opening in April 1918 and closing in May. ("This fountain of youth plays a very slender stream, and even that is of intermittent vigor," claimed one review.) Famous names played here -- George Gershwin, Billie Burke, Helen Hayes -- but it wouldn't be until Noel Coward debuted his scandalous, sex and cocaine-fueled comedy The Vortex in September 1925 that Miller's theater would see its first in a string of major successes. Miller himself, however, would not enjoy these successes; he died a few months after Coward's debut, in early 1926.

Below: Henry Miller's theater, during its glory days. Photo courtesy NYPL


But Henry's son Gilbert Miller had a knack for theatrical production even greater than his father. For three decades, he ushered countless box office hits through the Henry Miller's Theatre, including the Tony winning T.S. Eliot play The Cocktail Party starring Alec Guinness. Most notably, Our Town would make its Broadway debut here in February 1938, and in 1957, a young British actress named Angela Lansbury would make her American stage debut here in Hotel Paradiso. Gilbert would win an honorary Tony in the mid-1960s for his contributions to the New York stage.

By then, however, the theater began flirting with a transition that many midtown stages had already made -- into a legitimate movie house. Its first foray was also its most memorable, Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, premiering here in April 1961. The strangeness and theatricality of Fellini's masterpiece fit the Henry Miller playhouse perfectly, even if the stage itself was technically ill-fitted for movies. The grumpy critic Bosley Crowther was even impressed: "Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" ("The Sweet Life"), which has been a tremendous hit abroad since its initial presentation in Rome early last year, finally got to its American premire at Henry Miller's Theatre last night and proved to deserve all the hurrahs and the impressive honors it has received."

This might have been a harbinger for a fabulous future as an art house, however the theater was instead sold, renamed the Park-Miller, and entered the 1970s as one of Times Square's most popular porno theaters, specializing in all-male features for gay audiences.

Although Henry Miller was certainly turning in his grave, the theater actually become quite successful, more so than most of Miller's own productions during his lifetime. According to author Hilary Radner, "the Park-Miller Theater on 43rd Street grossed in excess of thirty thousand dollars per week in the early 1970s....For a five dollar admission fee, audience members watched a mixed program that included shorts, slides, and a dubbed minifeature, such as Truckers -- Men of the Road." A long way from The Fountain of Youth, indeed!

Below: an advertising glimpse into the theater's more prurient days

Everything changed in the spring of 1977 with the transformation of an old opera house into the superstar disco spectacular Studio 54, epitomizing the notion of nightlife as a headline-grabbing celebrity wonderland. One night at 54, music manager Howard Stein met Swiss restaurateur Peppo Vanini (the ex of actress Victoria Tennant), and the two cooked up a scheme to match the club's glamour in another midtown location.

Stein purchased the old porn theater and remade it into the discotheque Xenon, although Xerox might have been a better name, for it adhered closely to the Studio 54 formula of flashy nights, big celebrities and kitschy showmanship (cannons with colored feathers, a neon X above the dance floor).

Being just slightly lesser a club than 54, you actually did stand a chance of getting in if you happened not to be a bold-faced somebody. But Stein would occasionally stand at the door himself "weeding out the detested middle class from the very rich and the colorful poor," according to a New York Magazine profile.

Below: the club, during the day, in the 1970s:



Still, Xenon had its day, and on a typical hot summer night in 1979 or 1980 you might stumble into private parties hosted by Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Lauren Bacall, Ben Vereen, or Pele. Inside you might hear deejay Jellybean Benitez. Although people often stripped down to bikinis on the dance floor, you had fewer naked Grace Jones moments; Xenon "combined the craziness of Studio 54 with the comfort of Regine's" according to one source, Regine's being the more elegant nightclub entree owned by French chanteuse RĂ©gine Zylberberg.

With the end of disco came the end of Xenon, in 1984, and a brief attempt at turning the space into a rock 'n' roll venue called SHOUT! It lay mostly dormant, hosting temporary parties, until the early 1990s, when in a flash of inspiration, the Roundabout Theatre renovated the worn, abused little stage, combining all eras of its history to transform it into the Kit Kat Club, a cabaret venue fit to re-stage, naturally, Cabaret. That version, starring Alan Cumming and the late, wonderful Natasha Richardson, would go on to win the Tony for Best Musical Revival in 1998. Incidentally, that same year, a devastating construction crane accident next door closed the block for weeks, and Cabaret would be forced to move uptown -- to the former Studio 54.

Suddenly, all its prior incarnations seemed to enjoin to create its most successful reinvention yet. After Cabaret left, the hot off-Broadway show Urinetown moved in; that bawdy musical took three Tonys in 2003.

And then, they demolished it.

Saving the landmarked front exterior -- with Henry's name emblazoned along the top -- the rest of the building was scrapped in a massive construction project that eventually put the Conde Nast Building to its west side and the Bank of America building to its north, to which a new theater was attached, using that old exterior and renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. In the fine tradition of Henry Miller himself, the stage has features two shows -- a revival of Bye Bye Birdie, and the Dame Edna musical All About Me -- both flops.

For some great recollections of the glory days of Xenon, check out the website Disco Music. Featuring one commenter who says: "There'll never be a club like it again. Pinball machines would drop out of the neon heavens and land next to dancers gyrating to 'Funky Town' by Lipps. Not to mention the fake snow (clearly an homage to the abundant cocaine passing through nostrils by one and all) that dropped on you, sticking to your favorite nylon shirt."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The World of Transportation 1918, via Grand Central

A Grand Central-centric Rand McNally map of transporation options in 1918, "the subway, elevated and surface lines" available for residents of Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. (Sorry, Queens. Your borough would not be extensively served by New York's centralized train system for years.)

For a much clearer view, click into the picture or click here for a closer look. Or much better yet, visit the David Rumsey Map Collection, where this is from, to maneuver around the map in detail and look at other old New York maps in the collection.



Again, the most striking detail of maps like this one is the fringe-like, uninterrupted cluster of piers along the west end.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Little monsters overheads: gazing at New York gargoyles



Above: a freaky face hanging from the former mansion of Sinclair Oil tycoon Harry F. Sinclair (today, the Ukrainian Institute at 2 East 79th St.)

Here's a great little diversion for your day -- the photo website Gargoyles of New York, cataloguing all the grotesque grace adorning the nooks and corners of city skyscrapers, cathedrals and residences, as captured by some major zoom-lens action by photographer Michael G. Chan. Most of these are buildings you've probably walked by a thousand times without noticing these little creatures staring back at you.

Chan has been posting images of "gargoyles, grotesques and chimeras" there for several months, so have fun sifting through the archive of spooky, surreal faces.

Below: details from the New York Marriott East Side (525 Lexington Avenue) and the Church of the Blessed Sacrament (152 West 71st Street)



Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The stagecoach 'flying machines' from New York to Philly: when it's your only choice, who cares about comfort?


Pic Courtesy NYPL

Benjamin Franklin is, of course, awesome for many reasons. An often overlooked quality about Franklin in his early years was his ambition and fearlessness at solo traveling among the major cities along the eastern seaboard -- from Boston to New York, then, in 1723, to Philadelphia. It can't have been very easy; it certainly wasn't comfortable.

Franklin was a stowaway on a sloop between Boston and New York, a trip that took three days. The later trip to Philadelphia required Franklin to maneuver, according to this source, from "Perth Amboy (the capitol of East Jersey) to Trenton and nearby Burlington (the capital of West Jersey), and then down the Delaware to Philadelphia."

Travelling by land, although at times quicker, would have been dangerous and costly. Safe, dependable service between New York and Philadelphia via stagecoach would not be available for several years.

One source notes an irregular coach service between the two young cities, by way of Bordentown, NJ, starting in 1732. Passengers would sail from a New York ferry to a waiting coach on the New Jersey side -- most likely at the township of Perth Amboy, south of Staten Island.

By 1756, there were a handful of regular stagecoach services between New York and Philly, each taking approximately three days. The coaches were frequently nicknamed 'flying machines', implying they constantly kept at top speeds, the better to thwart their competitors. Naturally, the trodden paths between each city were well lined with taverns catering to travelers eager to escape the uncomfortable coach rides.

Oh, did I mention that early stagecoaches did not have springs to cushion riders from a rocky ride? "It was not uncommon for a passenger, rendered insensible by the constant jarring, to be carried bodily from the coach to a bed in the inn after a day's journey," according to one genealogical site.

But despite the incomparable discomfort, demand for travel between the two cities naturally increased. Two Staten Island brothers, John and Joshua Mersereau, became reigning stagecoach operators, connecting the two cities along various routes through New Jersey, using docks at Paulus Hook (today's Jersey City) and one in south Staten Island in a place charmingly called Old Blazing Star (today's Rossville neighborhood) where the Mersereaus also conveniently owned a tavern.

A competitor of the Mersereau brothers, John Butler, discovered coach operation in a slightly more colorful way. Butler owned a Philadelphia kennel expressly reserved for the use of fox hunters -- this was, after all, during British control -- who steered course to stagecoach operation from his very own appropriately named tavern, the Death Of The Fox. (Although I have no evidence, I would not be surprised if Ben Franklin -- age 50 in 1756 -- had at some point become familiar with Butler's establishment.)

It could be quite an elaborate ride. According to the old tome 'Stage-Coach and Tavern-Days' by Alice Morse Earle, Butler "with his waggon" would:

"...sets out on a Monday [from his tavern] and drives the same day to Trenton Ferry, where Francis Holman meets him, and the passengers and goods being shifted into the waggon of Isaac Fitzrandolph, he takes them to the New Blazing Star [different from Old Blazing Star and today's Travis, Staten Island] to Jacob Fitzrandolph's the same day, where Rubin Fitzrandolph, with a boat well suited will receive them and take them to New York that night."

So many Fitzrandolphs! Remember the complexities of this journey the next time you happen to take one of those Chinatown buses between New York and Philadelphia.

George Steinbrenner: "Owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa."



Above: George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin

And another from the former New York Yankees owner, who died of a heart attack today: "As I've always said, the way New Yorkers back us we have to produce for them."

Photo courtesy AP

Friday, July 9, 2010

New York City's Elevated Railroads: Journey to a spectacular world of steam trains along the avenues


Above: The Third Avenue Line as it looked running along the Bowery, changing the nature of New York street life, even as its innovations helped expand the city.

PODCAST Before there were subways, New York City transported travelers up and down the length of Manhattan by elevated railroad, an almost unreal spectacle to consider today. Steam engines sat high above several avenues in the city, offering passengers not just a faster trek to the northern reaches of Manhattan, but a totally new way to see the city in the 19th century.

Welcome to our second podcast in our series Bowery Boys On The Go, a look at the history of New York City transportation. Before we get to those famous 'El' trains, we explore the earliest travel options in the city -- the omnibuses and horse-drawn rail cars, the early steam successes of the New York and Harlem Railroad and Hudson River Railroads, and something affectionately nicknamed the one-legged railroad.

What were some of the more peculiar ideas for improving travel? And why was the idea of a subway immediately shot down by the city? Let's just say -- Boss Tweed and Jay Gould are involved.

ALSO: What were the different motivations driving transportation progress in the city of Brooklyn? Well, it has something to do with the beach.

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: New York's Elevated Railroads









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An illustration of the first traincar in the New York and Harlem Railroad system -- the John Mason, named for the railroad's president (Mason was also the president of Chemical Bank). It was designed by master engineer John Stephenson, who customized many of the New York and Harlem's traincars.



Charles Harvey developed the first elevated system for New York, essentially a cable/pulley system that stretched along the west side from the Battery. Below, Harvey gives his 'one-legged' line a tryout in 1867. (Pic courtesy Merritt Island Subway South)



Rufus Gilbert, a Civil War physician, turned to trains after the war and dreamt up an imaginative pneumatic system, to zip passengers above the city in Gothic-themed arches. Gilbert was given the go-ahead to construct this oddity, but the love for steam and a financial crisis transformed the idea into a steam elevated line instead. (Courtesy Columbia U)



Ladies Mile along the Sixth Avenue elevated line. The trains might have made the city expand outwards, but it also made the streets smaller and darker. (Original pic from Shorpy)



The Third Avenue line, where it ran alongside Cooper Union and traveled south down through the Bowery. This intersectioni today still sits rather wide and empty, a vestige of the days when tracks hovered above the roads. [NYPL]


An ornate station for the Ninth Avenue line, at Christopher and Greenwich streets in the West Village.


The Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad, the precursor to the Long Island Railroad. The section illustrated here is along Woodhaven Boulevard, but much of the line went along Atlantic Avenue.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Broadway to go: the horrible commute that never was



Imagine seeing this monstrosity coast up and down Broadway -- an elevated railway with cars carried both above and below the track.

By the early 1850s, steam engines had revolutionized how people traveled. However, in the heart of densely populated New York, it would have been unfeasible for trains to just pull into town down cluttered streets. The city had in fact drawn the line at 42nd Street as the terminus for steam-operated trains -- still an extremely northern destination in the era well before Central Park and Times Square.

But efficient public transit was still on people's minds, and innovators of the day first decided to look above ground, not below. A few rather strange ideas were actually embarked upon (we'll tell you about some of those in tomorrow's podcast.)

One idea that was thankfully discarded was the oddity above, a steam train hoisted above the sky on what appear to be pitchfork or wishbone shaped girders. Designed by James Swett (a Pittburgh inventor of whom very little is known) and published in Scientific American in 1853, this appears to be a standard elevated engine with a lower compartment dangling below the rails.

Meant as a conveyance along Broadway, this curious train would be boarded from staircases on the sidewalk -- not a traditional train station -- and, as this was mid 19th century New York, might have featured first-class accommodation.

More imaginatively, according to Swett, the engine "would be fired by coke, emitting neither smoke nor sparks".

Pic, from from NYPL Digital Gallery

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The hottest day in New York City history



New Yorkers flock to a public water fountain on a hot day. Taken between 1908 and 1915

I originally ran this story back in July 2007, but it seems pretty apt today, given the circumstances:

Its gonna get hot this summer in New York City. Pretty obviously July is the worst month for those in business suits, but as bad as it will eventually get, consider this:

The hottest day in New York City history was on July 9, 1936, where it reached a staggering 106 degrees. Pair that with the accepted fashion of the time -- i.e. shorts and tanktops were barely in vogue on Coney Island, much less casual dress wear through the streets -- and you've officially got one of the most unpleasant days in the city's history of recorded temperatures.

At 104 scorching degrees, runner up goes to July 21, 1977 -- which actually occurred eight days AFTER the legendary blackout -- and August 17, 1918, seeing the end of World War I and the beginning of a devastating influenza epidemic.

And the coolest NY July day? July 1, 1943 experienced a record low of 52 degrees. Bring me there now!

Picture courtesy LOC

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Happy Belated Birthday, P.T. Barnum!



Yesterday was Phineas Taylor Barnum's 200th birthday. Hopefully you did something outrageous to celebrate it. On top of renovating a railroad shed at Madison Square for one of his circuses (helping create the future Madison Square Garden), Barnum is most familiar to New Yorkers in the 19th century for his outrageous, moralistic, politically incorrect American Museum, which delighted audiences with wax figurines, freak shows and aquatic creatures in inappropriate tanks. Here all about it it in our podcast on Barnum's American Museum. (Pic above courtesy NYPL)

Friday, July 2, 2010

The 'barbarous customs' of a New York Fourth of July


Pic courtesy LOC

The caption for the above 1894 illustration, looking back to headier days, reads: "Have we improved upon our manner of celebrating the Fourth? looking south on Broadway from corner of Cortlandt Street, 1834." Here's that view today; simply replace those buildings with Liberty Plaza.

The proper classes agonized over New York's Fourth of July celebrations for decades, associating public holiday gathering as opportunities for crime, debauchery and behaviors unbecoming the populace of a world class city.

Ninety nine years ago on July 4th, 1911, Tammany Hall decided to counter program, with a day of "more oratory than ever before; more brass band music; more red, white, and blue decorations," all to be held at their headquarters right off of Union Square.

It appeared to be mostly a day of lectures on American patriotism by a litany of politicians, certainly something to appease and interest crowds on a hot day in these times before microphones and speakers. The keynote speaker was Manuel Luis Quezon, much later to become the president of the Philippines during the U.S. occupation of that nation.

According to the Times: "the cool shade of the Wigwam's basement will be open and all invited to partake of good things to eat, while the thirsty will have iced watermelon and other wet things that do not have to be chewed." Party time!

Today the Tammany Hall building that hosted this celebration now contains the Union Square Theater, currently playing the twisted puppet show Stuffed and Unstrung. So yes, you may now consider seeing a strange puppet show is a patriotic act.

By the way, since we're talking 1911, I noticed that the Edison Company produced a short film that year called 'A Sane Fourth of July' featuring New York City characters including the 'Mayor of the City'. Mostly likely this film was produced at Edison's film studio on Decatur Avenue in the Bronx. Earlier in the year, that same studio made the first film adaptation of 'Frankenstein'.

'A Sane Fourth of July' was a morality story, lecturing against 'the barbarous customs of the old-fashioned Fourth'. A widowed woman appeals to the mayor of New York to repeal the sale of fireworks in the city, but he rebuffs her under advisement of his cronies. As a result, both the widow's son and the mayor's daughter are injured in fireworks accidents, occurring just minutes later. (The daughter actually gets lockjaw.) Fascinating plot. Why hasn't this been remade?

At left: A scene from the 99-year-old 'A Sane Fourth of July'

We wish you all a great, sane Fourth of July, full of oratory and iced watermelon, and we'll be back here with new postings on July 6th and a brand new podcast on July 9th.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

New York City aviation history and the beautiful ruins of Floyd Bennett Field


Photo by Sean Nowicke/Buzzstew Click pic for larger view

Since I'm in a transportation history mindset this summer, I'll be making it a personal mission to visit a lot of glorious New York ruins with that theme. Staten Island boat graveyard, here I come!

But my first stop was a couple weekends ago, exploring the grounds of Brooklyn's old Floyd Bennett Field, New York's original airstrip and the first municipal airport. The area had been a private dirt airstrip for many years before 1930, when aviator Clarence D. Chamberlin received permission from the city to build lavish new facility here.


Photo by Sean Nowicke/Buzzstew

Over the years, the field (named for a Brooklyn pilot and adventurer) saw the greats of aviation -- Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, Howard Hughes, John Glenn -- and the most revolutionary of small aircraft. It was later turned into a base for the Marine and Naval Air Reserves and decommissioned and handed over to the national parks department as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area in 1972.

For more information, you can listen to our podcast on LaGuardia Airport and the early years of New York City flight. [Download it here or from iTunes]

Today many of the old hangars sit like broken, ghostly relics, presiding over empty fields and a vast airstrip slowly being taken over by plant growth. The north end of the field is still very much in use, with a recreation center featuring an ice skating rink, gymnasium and rock climbing wall, and a football field outside. There was a cheesy carnival set up when I visited. And next to the withering airstrip is Brooklyn's largest community garden.

But the star of the show are those unused hangars filled with strange rubble and unidentifiable, rusted machines, broken windows sending light beams at stark angles. You can't go inside them, but you can get extraordinarily close.


Photo by Sean Nowicke/Buzzstew

For a lot more information, I recommend checking out Forgotten NY's detailed exploration of the site. You can check here for directions to the field, including by subway (the 2 train and a bus ride).

The photos on this page are by Sean Nowicke, a wonderful photographer who has more pictures of our trip there on his blog. He's a world traveler and has a lot of fantastic photos of other places as well -- check them out at Buzzstew.