Friday, October 29, 2010

New York Hocus Pocus: Kellar and the Spirit Cabinet



Many late 19th century New Yorkers were hypnotized by the the glamor of the spiritualist circuit, mediums, magicians and mind readers purporting communications with the ghostly world and conveniently in performance form with hefty ticket prices.

One of the most popular was Harry Kellar, Kellar the Magician, whose technical slight of hands in such tricks as 'The Vanishing Lamp' and 'The Levitation of Princess Karnac' made him a popular draw on legitimate stages like Daly's (30th and Broadway) and the minstrel house Dickstader's Theater.

The poster above highlights one of Kellar's greatest illusions via the 'spirit cabinet', a hokey convention of magical spirit diving that was actually invented by Kellar's mentors the Davenport Brothers. By confining himself to the cabinet while feats of unexplained trickery manifested around him, Kellar could 'prove' the tricks were products of an unseen spiritual hand.

In April 1905, Kellar played the old Majestic Theater in Columbus Circle. One of the highlights included "two persons in the audience playing a game of euchre, the progress of which was suggested by large playing cards that appeared above the spirit cabinet on the stage."

The tricks of Kellar enthralled New Yorkers and set the stage for one of his biggest fans, Harry Houdini, to become king of the magic circuit.

Below: Kellar sitting next to young Houdini, 1912


Pic above courtesy NYPL Digital Gallery

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen, I present ... the Haunted Penthouse!



Hopefully you've listened to this week's 'Supernatural Stories of New York' podcast and heard Tom's tale of the legend of two combative ghosts who haunted the penthouse at 57 W. 57 Street.

Well, here's a couple pictures of the penthouse in question. Thanks to Dave at The Imagist for sending us the link. You can see more pictures here.



I should make a slight alteration to the legend of the warring lovers of 57 W. 57th Street. Charles Brazelle, Edna Champion's lover, may in fact have been thrown from the terrace and received injuries that would eventually kill him. But he didn't die immediately. In fact, he lived long enough to contest the will (unsuccessfully). It's claimed that Charlie had wiled away some of Champion's money, perhaps even within the walls of the penthouse itself. But it was obviously not enough. Brazelle would be dead by December.

And finally, below is a picture of Edna's husband Albert Champion, who died of a mysterious heart attack in France, allowing Edna to escape back to New York with her lover Charlie and live in this fancy new penthouse. Champion was a racer and early innovator of spark plugs. You know, as in Champion Spark Plugs?

His Time Magazine obituary comments dryly: "When he played, he played hard. He was married."




Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Plastic Faces of Ben Cooper, Brooklyn King of Masks


The many visages of the Ben Cooper brand: faces from a 1980 product catalog. (You can check out the whole catalog at Plaid Stallions)

Kids these days! With their fancy selection of Halloween costumes, with ornate detailing and comfort, with their diversity and realism.

For thrifty parents in the 1970s and 80s, the decision to costume their children usually led to the rows of Ben Cooper Halloween smocks and plastic body garb, topped with a mask (held to the head with a rubber band) looking vaguely like the character it alleged to embody. On top of the standard fair Draculas and Frankensteins, one could often find Chewbaccas, Spider-Mans, Mickey Mouses and other, non-traditional creations.

They reeked strongly of plastic and were one-size-fits-all. Still, throw in a plastic jack-o-lantern to hold your candy and a flashlight, and you were set for trick-or-treating every October 31st.

Halloween was synonymous with Ben Cooper products for many children. The variety and simplicity of the little synthetic outfits -- paired with the company's savvy licensing division -- made them staples of the season, until an early '80s damper that brought on a decade of financial woes and eventually bankrupted the company.

Ben Cooper Inc., the company that manufactured these tiny costumes, was a homegrown New York company through and through. The headquarters for this magical, mystical place of costumes was located near the edge of Sunset Park (a couple blocks away from Green-wood Cemetery), at 33 34th Street, Brooklyn, New York, among the nondescript warehouses and storage facilities that face into the Gowanus Bay, not far from the very first settlement (in 1636) in a region that would become Breukelen. If only the Ben Cooper company had known! He could have made Dutch Walloon masks and smocks.

The man behind the cheap costume empire, Benjamin Cooper, was born in 1906 in the Lower East Side and was given his first costume (a little devil suit) at age 7. After a brief stint as a songwriter on Tin Pan Alley, Cooper segued into the theatrical costume business in 1927 when he was 21, making costumes for chorus girls at the Cotton Club in Harlem and even a few latter-year Ziegfeld Follies.

Cooper pretty much fell into the Halloween regalia business. American businesses were turning holidays into retail opportunities, upgrading obscure traditions and inventing new ones. Religious iconography and culture-specific celebrations were forced to share its holidays with mainstream, family-friendly motifs. The practices of Hallowe'en, with its Celtic, Christian and medieval origins, were melded with newer modified customs that were, conveniently, fueled by American retail products.

Namely, trick-or-treating, which was not a widespread component of the holiday until the 1930s. One source I read theorizes that the organized custom of going house to house for a candy treat developed as a way to control late-night Halloween vandalism like egging and papering houses -- although, of course, it's hardly stopped those practices. (I can't find any reference to 'trick-or-treating' in the New York Times before the 1940s)

The growing popularity of trick-or-treating facilitated a need for mass-produced costumes, and Cooper was there to make them. He left theatrical costuming entirely and started his new company, Ben Cooper Inc., in Red Hook in 1937.

The secret to his success was licensing. During his first year, he merged with a company that held the merchandising rights to Walt Disney's characters and would soon define his business using the imagery of pop culture favorites. (At right: Smurfs rendered in the Ben Cooper aesthetic, courtesy the Smurf website Blue Buddies.)

Cooper dominated this market for most of the mid century with few competitors, offering children of the 1950s ensembles like Davy Crockett and Raggedy Ann. Real humans entered the mix in the 1960s with a popular set of Beatles costumes. (Less popular in 1963 was the unfortunate manufacture of JFK and Jackie costumes.) Film and television stars dominated the 1970s, with characters from Star Wars, Sesame Street, even (controversially) the monster from Alien. And most manufactured here in Red Hook.

"The entire line of flame-retardant capes, playsuits (sizes 4-14), ponchos and masks sells for $2 to $5 in K marts, Kresge's, Woolworth's and other chain stores across the U.S." says a 1979 People Magazine profile of Ben Cooper.

Ben Cooper Inc. fell upon hard times in the 1980s, when the Tylenol cyanide fear spread to paranoia about poisoned Halloween candy, for a time curtailing the yearly ritual and sending profits plummeting. Costumes by rival companies were also getting more sophisticated; they already had to fend off the likes of Collegeville and Don Post, who cornered the rubber-mask market.

The company declared bankruptcy and moved out of New York in 1991 and was swiftly folded into another rival Rubies Costumes. Ben Cooper remains one of New York's greatest contributions to the Halloween tradition and is fondly remembered today, even if nobody will ever admit to being very comfortable wearing the nostalgic, plastic garb.

Trick or treating, by the way, didn't shoehorn its way into the practices of American children without a fight. Indeed, in 1948, members of the Madison Square Boys Club, most likely encouraged by their adult members, marched in a city parade protesting the practice of going to strangers' houses and asking for candy. Their banner? "American Boys Don't Beg."

Monday, October 25, 2010

I Sit On Your Grave: New York's Hidden Burial Plots


Here's a chilling thought for the Halloween season: if you're visiting one of New York's many amazing parks and squares, most likely you're standing on land that was formerly used as a cemetery or potter's field. And in some cases they even left the bodies behind!

If you're fluent in your New York history, you probably know a couple of these. Most of these burial plots date from before 1851, when the city passed an ordinance forbidding further burials (without explicit permission) below 86th Street. Historical cemeteries (like those at Trinity Church and Old St. Patrick's) and land with private vaults (such as the East Village marble cemeteries) were allowed to remain, and unique exceptions have been made, such as the singular grave of William Jenkins Worth at Madison Square.

Washington Square Park, Manhattan
1797-1825
"Where now are asphalt walks, flowers, fountains, the Washington arch, and aristocratic homes, the poor were once buried by the thousands in nameless graves." (Kings Handbook of New York, 1893) When fashionable New Yorkers moved from the confines of lower Manhattan to the area of Greenwich Village, the burial ground was closed for business and a lovely park placed on top of it.

While this might seem truly morbid, in fact the city considered this a preventative and sanitary option. According to city records, a recommendation was made that "the present burial ground might serve extremely well for plantations of grove and forest trees, and thereby, instead of remaining receptacles of putrefying matter and hot beds of miasmata."

Today, that 'hot bed of miasmata' serves as one of New York's most bustling and vibrant outdoor spaces. But the city simply built over the burial ground. It was claimed during the 19th century that a blue mist could be seen hanging over the park at night, the creepy vapor of the remains underground.

Are the bodies still here? Oh yes.
How many? Definitely over 20,000 (and they're constantly turning up in excavation work). There were once as many as 125,000 people buried here

Leverish Street and 71st Street, Queens
1765-1818?
A private cemetery once used by the Leverish family, a prosperous Long Island clan descended from English minister, the Rev. William Leverich. According to a family genealogy site: "The contemporary location of the burial ground is a rectangular plot located immediately behind the rear yards of several private residences that face on Leverich Street, and on the other side immediately behind a parking lot behind several apartment buildings that face on 35th Avenue at the intersection of 71st Street."

Are the bodies still there? According to author Carolee Inskeep, "there is no evidence to suggest that the bodies were removed."
How many? Unknown

Liberty Place (at Maiden Lane), Manhattan
1700-1823
This burial ground served New York's first Quaker congregation, formerly called the Little Green Street Burial Ground of the Society of Friends (Liberty Place was once known as Little Green Street). Its location is currently in the shadow of the New York Federal Reserve.

Are the bodies still there? Probably not, but the city gave them only six short months to move all the remains to a new location, so you never know what they might have left behind.


Union Square, Manhattan (above)
?-1807
Potter's fields -- where the poor or unclaimed were buried -- moved frequently around the city as land values improved with the city's growth. This particular area at 14th Street was once comfortably outside of town, but its proximity near Bloomingdale Road (the future Broadway) soon required its functions as a burial plot be transferred to other usable fields, like Washingon Square. The land here was transformed into the ellipse-shaped Union Place, a strolling park surrounded by an iron fence. By the 1830s, Samuel Ruggles would modify it further into New York's toniest park Union Square, luring the wealthy who quickly built homes of 'costly magnificence' around it.

Are the bodies still there? Certainly not, given the park's frequent renovations and the subway station right underneath.

Madison Square Cemetery, Manhattan
1794-1797
The short duration of this burial ground stems from the fact that it was used only to inter those who died at nearby Bellevue Hospital and the local almshouse during a devastating yellow fever epidemic. Later, with fears of a new war with England looming, the land was given to the U.S. Army as an arsenal, and the land that was later Washington Square became the official place to bury the dead.

Are the bodies still there? There's some evidence to suggest that some of the remains were never moved.

How many? Unknown, although the epidemic took hundreds in the 1790s, and according to my estimation, there could be up to 1,000 buried here.

New York City Farm Colony Cemetery (Castleton Corners), Staten Island
1830-1910
This land served New York's Farm Colony, an occupational asylum for the elderly and orphaned, and later a convalescent home for those with tuberculosis. The cemetery was once well kept, but today most of the tombstones are gone, and the land is virtually unmarked. Part of the farm colony has become part of the Greenbelt. The ruins of the Farm Colony are, frankly, unbelievable.

Are the bodies still there? Yes, the plots simply stopped being maintained
How many? Hundreds

Old Newtown Cemetery (92th Street and 56th Avenue), Queens
Off and on between 1652-1880
A family cemetery that became a horse pasture in the 19th century, cut through with cross streets, then designated a New York city park in 1932. Today, it's the Newtown Playground.

Are the bodies still there? Many (notably from reputable families) were moved piecemeal to family plots or to Hart Island, but it's not clear that the city ever methodically moved all the bodies. But something else is definitely there. A Queens Annual Report from 1927, as referenced by the parks department, claims “[a]ll the old headstones, which stuck up like eyesores, were laid flat and covered with soil." So enjoy that swing set, kids!


Bryant Park, Manhattan (above, from 1907)
1823-40 but possibly used as late as 1847
Yet another burial plot for paupers, still further north of city center. Soon however the adjoining land became an ideal spot to put the Croton Reservoir, supplying the city with drinking water. And it wouldn't do to have a bunch of gravaes next to it, right? Following a short time as the location of the Crystal Palace, the land was turned into a park, named after William Cullen Bryant.

Are the bodies still there? The only thing you're going to find under Bryant Park are miles and miles of library books, in tunnels owned by the New York Public Library.

Park Avenue and 49th Street, Manhattan
1822-1859
In the early 18th century, the area soon to become known as the richest street in America was home to railroad tracks, cattle yards, various grim asylums and, yes, Manhattan's last potter's field. When Columbia University moved uptown, it sat near the shoddy field, so decrepitly maintained that "the ends of coffins still protruded from the ground," according to Edward Sandford Martin "a malodorous neighbor much in evidence and disrepute."

In the late 1850s, the city forced the potter's field off the island entirely and the bodies were slated for removal to Ward's Island. Given municipal corruption and delays, however, the project took years, with train passengers often greeted with the sight of coffin stacks and grisly open pits.

Today, that former burial plot is occupied by the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, built on the property in 1929, long since transformed by the Central Railroad and burial of tracks into Grand Central Station.

Are the bodies still there? Given the deep excavations underneath Park Avenue to accommodate trains and skyscrapers, I don't imagine anything remains.

NOTE: Some of the dates above are estimates as record keeping for these kinds of things were hit and miss. Many dates are from Carolee Inskeep's exhaustive survey of old New York burial grounds The Graveyard Shift.

Pics courtesy New York Public Library [Union Square] [Washington Square] [Bryant Park]

Friday, October 22, 2010

Supernatural Stories of New York: spooky seances, violent Jazz Age ghosts and an island of despair



PODCAST It's our fourth annual Halloween history special, and we've got four bloodcurdling stories for the season. The first three are spooky ghost tales -- a haunted boardinghouse on 14th street with violent, vain spirits; a short history of New York's seance craze and a man tormented by the spirit of a dead painter; and a glamorous pair of Jazz Age lovers whose angry spats in their midtown Manhattan penthouse kept up the neighbors, even beyond the grave.

ALSO: A tale with no ghosts at all, but a story with truly spine-tingling facts, featuring the eeriest island in New York and the final resting place for over 850,000 souls. If you ever make it to Hart Island, it means that things have gone very badly for you.

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: Supernatural Stories of New York



Home to the American Society of Psychical Research on W. 73rd Street, the organization headed by James Hyslop in the early 1900s. Hyslop led the investigation of dozens of reported cases of paranormal and supernatural activity.



Hyslop, pictured below, believed that he spoke with famous philosopher William James through a medium, and he himself spoke to his secretary via this technique many months after he died.


A bizarre image depicting medium Etta De Camp being visited by author Frank Stockton. Ms. De Camp believed her hand was being controlled by Stockton and even wrote a entire book under the control of Stockton.


Looking up at the former penthouses of 57 W. 57th Street, where Edna Champion and her lover Charlie argued their way into the grave, then tormented the unfortunate tenants for many years later. Today, these formerly haunted floors are slated to be occupied by Ford Models.


An abandoned records room on Hart Island. This and many other wonderful photographs of Hart Island can be found at Kingston Lounge, bravely venturing to the island in 2008 to witness the strange and forlorn island in person.


The Hart Island Project has been drawing needed attention the island for years, obtaining lists of people buried there and assisting in families looking for loved ones there. It's also features a fantastic collection of photographs, such as the one below (of a lonely grave marker) by Joel Sternfeld.


And finally, a fascinating and priceless local news report from 1978 on Hart Island, looking a bit more populated than it is today. Unbelievably, there was talk of actually developing Hart Island for more than just the city's potter's field.



If you're looking to craft your own personal 'haunted' walking tour, this map lists all the places we've talked about in prior ghost stories podcasts. Simply look up a location and download that particular episode:

View Bowery Boys Ghost Stories in a larger map

1 Ghost Stories of New York
2 Spooky Stories of New York
3 Haunted Tales of New York
4 Supernatural Stories of New York

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beware! The costumed Halloween gang of the 1910s

The Bowery Boys 4th Annual Halloween Podcast is coming your way this Friday, featuring four new tales of haunted history. We're putting it together now and will try to have it ready for download by Thursday night.

Below: A different set of flamboyant boys get gussied up for the Hallowe'en holiday. Click pic for a closer view. (Courtesy opiummuseum/Flickr)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A new 'Metropolis' -- for our metropolis -- at the Ziegfeld


Fritz Lang claims the Manhattan skyline influenced the look of his film 'Metropolis' . In fact, the film's fantasy city resembles futuristic sketches rendered by American magazine illustrators of the late 19th century.

The giant screen at the Ziegfeld Theatre goes silent this Friday as a two-week run of Fritz Lang's fantasy masterpiece 'Metropolis' opens, featuring the famously restored print -- with 30 minutes of newly integrated footage -- that presents the most complete version of the movie ever screened in the city. This version originally debuted at the Film Forum back in May, but the Ziegfeld's massive screen -- the largest in the city -- and classic cinema setting should make this an unforgettable event.

The Ziegfeld seats a little over 1,100 people. The film made its New York debut on March 3, 1927 on a much bigger screen, the Rialto, on the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, which could accommodate over 1,900 filmgoers at one time. (And that was considered a medium-sized theater for its day.) In the days when single films toured to various cities in succession, 'Metropolis' was a bonafide box office favorite for New Yorkers, raking in just over $150,000 during a six week run, back when the price of movie tickets ranged from 30 to 90 cents. Below: the Rialto Theatre in 1917


What was shown to audiences in 1927 would have made cineastes wither with shame, a "butchered, disjointed " version released by Paramount Pictures, with whole reels of the film discarded, "16 reels to 7, resulting in a plot with 'more holes than a pound of rigatoni.'" (Cesar J. Rotondi)." [source] In place of those reels were a couple shorts, including a scenic documentary called 'Steamer Day'.

The version of 'Metropolis' being shown at the Ziegfeld is the truest to the filmmaker's original vision. And a perfect home for it, too, as Lang had always claimed that the film was inspired by a journey to New York. On October 12 1924, while being kept in the harbor aboard the vessel SS Deutschland awaiting entry, Lang caught sight of the city skyline for the first time, "completely new and fairy-tale like for a European. I knew then that I had to make a film about all of these sensations."

As production on 'Metropolis' began just five months later, however, there were undoubtedly other inspirations before Manhattan, and many film historians believe Lang told of his New York inspiration as a way to promote the movie.

New York critics were all over the map in their appreciation. "There is altogether too much of Metropolis...too much scenery, too many people, too much plot and too many platitudinous ideas," proclaimed the critic from Life Magazine. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times was kinder: "Nothing like "Metropolis" has been seen on the screen. It, therefore, stands alone, in some respects, as a remarkable achievement." Before adding, "It is a technical marvel with feet of clay, a picture as soulless as the manufactured woman of its story." (They were watching the heavily edited version, so we'll give them a pass.)

The film had left New York by May 1927 -- the era of sound movies would come that summer with 'The Jazz Singer' -- but it left one spiritual mark on the city: three years later, architect William Van Alen pays the film a subconscious nod when the spire of the Chrysler Building is raised May 20, 1930.

Monday, October 18, 2010

'Mad Men' notes: Remembering the Times Square HoJo



Howard Johnson at 46th Street: Dinner and a movie, all in one corner! There's even Vietnam war protesters outside. (Photo by Bob Gruen, taken 1972, courtesy Ephemeral New York)

Every Monday I'll try and check in with the Mad Men episode from the night before and focus in on one or two historical references made on the show. Spoilers aplenty, so read no further if you don't want to know....

I was disappointed with last night's season finale of Mad Men, not because of the out-of-nowhere shenanigans of Don Draper, but because a full half of the show took place in Los Angeles, leaving precious little opportunity for historical references. In fact, the two big references were L.A. originals, Disneyland and Whisky-a-Go-Go, which would have been only a year old in 1965.

But thankfully there was a brief mention (via Peggy's hipster friend Joyce) of a treasured Times Square staple, and a place that most New Yorkers think of with great fondness -- the Howard Johnsons restaurant at 46th and Broadway.

Nowhere on the planet could you find a more delicious plate of cheese fries or a dirtier martini. It stood for many years as the last remaining relics of the Times Square's transitional period between glitz and grit, a stubborn throwback of authentic diner glamour. When it closed in 2005 -- replaced with an American Eagle Outfitters -- I'm was shocked that Time Square didn't cave in on itself, as though HoJo's and its greasy, glorious food were all that was holding it in place.

By the 1950s, the chain of hotels and restaurants founded by Massachusetts entrepreneur Howard Deering Johnson had spread throughout the United States, providing hearty and wholesome sustenance to mainstream, middle-class Americans. It was as ubiquitous and as recognizable with its orange roofs and friendly signage as McDonalds. So much so that Time Square alone had three of them, the first here at 49th and Broadway, a hole in the wall that had once employed up-and-coming actors Lily Tomlin and Gene Hackman. The HoJos here at 46th and Broadway, surviving the others, opened in 1955.

Nothing reflected the changes of Times Square more than this corner. Above the HoJo had been the glorious Orpheum Dance Palace, a once popular and rowdy dance hall that soon offered patrons their very own 'private dancers' and was closed down in 1964 for prostitution. It then became a porn theater called the New Paris -- described as smelling "like decayed flesh in there, a lot of bodily fluids" -- and later was later split into two spaces, housing a small legit theater (where A Perfect Crime ran for years) and the Gaiety male strip club.

And all the while, the Howard Johnsons below it retained its glittered-tile elegance, refusing to update their signs or menus. In the 1980s, it was an ideal spot to watch theater-goers and prostitutes. Penn Gillete (of Penn and Teller fame) had Friday night meet-ups here before heading off with a crowd for a weekly midnight movie screening.

In the '90s, the now beaten but still thriving diner stood in contrast to the changing fortunes of Times Square, dwarfed by the multi-million dollar makeover. Eventually its corner real estate became too valuable for it to survive and it closed in 2005 -- one of the last Howard Johnson's restaurants in America. I miss it very much.

HoJoLand has a lovely tribute -- full of photographs -- of several former New York HoJos, including the Times Square locations.

ALSO: You might have heard a character mention the name Abe Beame, the city comptroller who ran for mayor in 1965, losing to John Lindsay (who's also been name dropped on the show). Abe of course would get his chance to rule New York nine years later.

That's it for Mad Men this year. Please go here if you'd like to go back and read prior articles based on references made on the show.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Lovelace's Tavern: Early New York history, under foot


Lovelace's Tavern is assumably the building to the left, with the Stadt Huys the main structure at center. You can find the foundations of this building still hanging out on Stone Street.

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: Lovelace's Tavern
Stone Street, Manhattan
In operation 1670-1706

If you're a wanderer like I am, you've walked by Lovelace's Tavern many times. People regularly walk on it; investment bankers take smoking breaks nearby it. It's about 100 feet from the more famous Fraunces Tavern and just a block from the Alexander Hamilton Custom House. It's history under glass, underfoot, remains trapped in a dusty cavity, the intervening eras heaped above it.

When Lovelace's opened its doors in 1670, the Custom House was a fort and Fraunces was the home to the first mayor of new York, Stephanus van Cortlandt. The city extended a few blocks north, then abruptly stopped at a earthen wall fortified with timber planks 15 feet in height. The tallest building in New York in 1670 was next door to Lovelace's -- all of five or six floors.

All that remains of the tavern of Governor Lovelace today are a few foundation walls set underfoot outside the former Goldman Sachs headquarters at 85 Broad Street. A rather unsightly office tower, 85 Broad Street was built during the glamour of the 1980s financial boom, a brown monolith of "inconspicuous plainness" that hovers above historic Stone Street. They've traced a path through the lobby so you can see where Stone Street used to linger before they planted this building here.

If wasn't for Goldman Sachs, of course, nobody would have ever found Lovelace's Tavern, whose foundations were unearthed in 1979 during construction. With a little imagination, you can rebuild it in your mind and refit it among the other historical recreations along Pearl and Stone streets.

The Stadt Huys was the center of New Amsterdam's civic life -- its municipal structure, its meeting hall, its sturdy town center. Built as a tavern in 1641, Peter Stuyvesant transformed it into the young settlement's city hall, but kept it as a place to serve alcohol, all the while restricting many others in New Amsterdam from doing so.

When the British took over in 1664, the building kept its place of importance. Underscoring is position was the building to the southwest that was erected in 1670, a tavern ("an inn, or ordinary")owned by the governor of New York, Colonel Francis Lovelace (at right).

Francis was in good with the Duke of York during his territorial expansion of the New World and was installed in 1668 as the second governor of the recently acquired New York after the first (Richard Nicolls) was recalled.

Built right next door to the aging Stadt Huys, Lovelace's tavern may have always been conceived as a second-tier administration building and seemed to offer the same services as the larger building. (It's sometimes referred to as the King's House.) In fact, the tavern connected right into municipal chambers, effectually an annex. Even so, the halls of the tavern would be illuminated until late at night with revelers, drinking wine and smoking their pipes.

This was the first of many changes made under Lovelace's watch. He inaugurated the first postal service to Boston; its first route would become the basis for so many major thoroughfares today, most notably the Bowery. He also strengthened New York as a merchant hub, forcing farmers from surrounding areas to funnel their product through the city, and giving New York merchants a virtual monopoly of posts along the entire Hudson River.

At right: Another depiction of Stadt Huys and Lovelace's Tavern from a few years later. The tavern also played host to most of the prominent leaders in town. Perhaps even ole Stuyvesant dragged his pegleg along its floors; he did, after all, live on a large farm north of the city and was alive during the tavern's first two years of operation.

Lovelace, unfortunately, would be dead in a few years. During the short period when the Dutch regained control of New York -- from August 1673 to December 1674 -- Lovelace was recalled to England and squarely blamed for the loss. He was thrown in the Tower of London and died there in 1675.

But the tavern bearing his name lived on, even incorporating nearly all official New York business for a short time in 1697 when the first structure was deemed too decrepit to continue in. (An official city hall was finally built in 1700 where the city wall once stood.) The tavern burned down in 1706 and the land re-allotted for the growing merchant district.

Below: the remnants of Lovelace's, in the shadow of 85 Broad Street


Photo courtesy J Gatz/Flickr

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The life and death of Bayard's Mount/Bunker Hill,
lower Manhattan's missing mountain



A watercolor by artist Archibald Robertson in 1798, looking south, with Bayard's Mount/Bunker Hill to the left and Collect Pond dead center.

Bayard's Mount, one of the highest points in Manhattan, has been gone for more than two hundred years. Where other hills and high points have been incorporated into the modern topography New York, this old hill was wiped from the map.

I used Bayard's Mount as a positioning landmark in last week's podcast on Niblo's Garden. It used to sit at around where Mott and Grand Streets meet today, in today's Little Italy. Indeed, when nearby SoHo was but a dense thicket of oak and tulip trees, it was the best place to view the waters of Collect Pond, the wild northern orchards, and the flat tidal creeks to the west. A smaller hilltop, called Mount Pleasant, sat to its east and, with the introduction of Europeans, a road (Bowery) ran along it. Sitting atop Bayard's Mount, a person could wile away the day watching travelers going along the Bowery, to and from the city.

Some reminiscence refer to Bayard's Mount and Mount Pleasant as the same hill, and they were close enough they seem to be part of the same ridge.

After the pass over from Dutch to British hands in the mid-17th century, most of the property fell into the hands of Nicholas Bayard, and the "small, cone-shaped mount" took on the name of its landowner, who built his sturdy estate just to its north. Even by the early 18th century, Bayard's family would still have few neighbors; swampy ground prevented much development west, while property to the east eventually belonged to James DeLancey, the governor of the colony.

The mount took on a more serious purpose with the onset of the Revolutionary War. In March of 1776, "One third of the citizens were ordered out to erect new works; they began a fort upon Mr. Bayard's Mount near the Bowery." [source] This fortification, built in anticipation of a messy battle with the British, was named after a critical battle the year previous at Bunker Hill in Boston; soon, the hill itself took on the name, and in most histories after 1776, this place at today's Mott and Grand Streets is officially known as Bunker Hill. Notably stationed here at Bunker Hill was Nathan Hale.

There would be no significant altercations here between British troops and the Continental Army. No, in fact, the bloodshed would wait until after the war, when the hilltop would be known as a fashionable place to host your duel. For instance, in 1787, a disagreement between two French men ended in a duel here and the death of one of them, a "Monsieur Chevalier de Longchamps" who was apparently no stranger to offense and violent response.

Below: From Montressor's map of Manhattan, 1755, you can see Bayard's property and both hills. The Bowery runs along the bottom right hand of the illustration, with Collect Pond near the bottom left



In July 1788, to celebrate the federal ratification of the Constitution, a procession marched through the city and ended its revelry at Bayard's Mount/Bunker Hill, where "ten enormous tables laden with provisions" and hundreds of pounds of roasted ox were served to hungry patriots. Several years later, in 1795, a different gathering, angered by their governor John Jay over his (perceived) treasonous treaty with the British, burned his portrait in a bonfire here.

Another curious pastime at the hilltop was the British sport of 'bull baiting', where a bull would be tied to a stake and slowly tortured by angry dogs. Why this is of any visible amusement is beyond me, although its cousin 'bear beating' is still sometimes practiced in Pakistan.

New York was outgrowing the southern point of Manhattan, and former deterrents for expansion -- the marshes of Lispinard's Meadow, polluted Collect Pond, and of course, Bayard's Mount -- were slated for elimination. The ponds and marshes would soon be drained, creating Canal Street, and Broadway expanded further north. (Listen to our podcast on Collect Pond and Canal Street for more information.) By then, Bayard's was but a memory.

Beginning in 1802, workmen began levelling Bayard's Mount and Mount Pleasant which also included moving the old Bayard family crypt which had its entrance at the bottom of the hill. Unfortunately, it was discovered that a "hermit or ragman" had moved into the vault and turned it his very own macabre home. Remarkably, the man was allowed to live there -- "he was somewhat feared and not much troubled by visitors" -- until he was found one day dead in the vault.

By the time Collect Pond was completely drained (around 1811), the hills to its north had gone, replaced with land lots and the first hints of townhouses and new businesses.

Below: The approximate position of where Bayard's Mount would have been:


View Larger Map

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New York City Marble Cemetery had quite a weekend



Above: President James Monroe laid to the rest at the New York City Marble Cemetery in 1831.

I hope many of you hit some of the Open House events throughout the city this weekend. Both the New York Marble Cemetery and the New York City Marble Cemetery were open to the public, both areas calm, quiet respites featuring the burial chambers of some early prominent New Yorkers. The similarly named resting places are a block away from each other in the East Village.

The less manicured New York Marble Cemetery is the oldest, dating from 1830, and includes the burial chamber of former mayor Aaron Clark . However the New York City Marble Cemetery, which opened one year later, is bit more aesthetically maintained and was once the final resting place of President James Monroe (before they moved him to Virginia), not to mention two mayors, Marinus Willett and Stephen Allen.

And of course, it was also home to a large cache of C-4 explosives!

New York Times: Explosives Abandoned In Cemetery Are Mystery
Gothamist: C-4 Found At Cemetery Becomes More Mysterious



(Illustration from Uncle Sam's NY Tours)

Anne Hutchison vs. Benjamin Linus from 'Lost'!


"Heretic, you are hereby banished from the island!"

I got into my love of New York City history by way of several years of interest in American religious history. So I was personally looking forward to the three-part American Experience series 'God In America' (on PBS), which got its start last night. I recommend it overall, although it relies heavily on reenactment techniques you may find distracting.

To be clear, this isn't about religion in North America, but simply 'God', the Judeo-Christian God, by way of our country's foundation. For instance, Native American religions are introduced and dispensed with in the first ten minutes, during a segment on the Spanish Catholics and their religious clash with the Pueblos.

The first part provides a clean explanation of how Christianity radically changed for the New World, how it was infused with independent spirit and mobilized for the demands of harsh, unexplored terrain. It covers the era of the Revolutionary War (and Thomas Jefferson's contributions to the 'freedom of religion'), the spread of Evangelical revivalism, and the early battles between the established Protestants and the Catholicism of newly arrived Irish immigrants.

New Yorker 'Dagger' John Hughes figures prominently in this episode, the fiery bishop who fought the city over its requirement of using one particular religious text, the Protestant-friendly King James Bible, in public schools. Hughes made a more visible contribution to New York City with the commission of the new St. Patrick's Cathedral.

'God In America' leans quite heavily upon reenactments, as with the tales of another icon of New York history, Anne Hutchinson. She is no match in her battles with John Winthrop in the Connecticut colony, not so much because of her actual religious determination, but because Winthrop is played by two-time Emmy winner Michael Emerson, best known for the evil Benjamin Linus from 'Lost'.

And Hutchinson's story fades before they get to my favorite part -- her settlement in New Netherlands in the area of Pelham Bay, Bronx.

Parts two and three unroll over the next two nights. There's also a one-hour special 'God In New York' hosted by Jon Meacham that comes along for the ride, focusing on New York's unique religious diversity. It features a small recap of the city's religious history, with a special focus on the Flushing Remonstrance.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Niblo's Garden: New York's entertainment complex and home to the first (bizarre) Broadway musical



Show-stopping: The interior of Niblo's Garden Theatre. Illustration by Thomas Addis Emmet, courtesy NYPL

PODCAST It's the 1820s and welcome to the era of the pleasure garden, an outdoor entertainment complex delighting wealthy New Yorkers in the years before public parks. Wandering gravel paths wind past candle-lit sculptures, songbirds in gilded cages, and string quartets in gazebos, while high above, nightly fireworks spray the sky.

Niblo's Garden, at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street, was the greatest of them all, with an exhibit room for panoramas and refreshment hall consider by some to be one of New York's very first restuarants. But it was Niblo's grand theater, seating 3,000 people, that would make Niblo's reputation as the venue for both high- and low-brow events. And in 1866, a production debuted there that would change everything -- the gaudy, much-too-long spectacle The Black Crook, considered by most as the very first Broadway musical.

Music in the episode is Enigma Variation VI. Ysobel by Elgar. It's actually from after the time period of Niblo's, but it's so very strolling-the-garden, isn't it? And I had a cold this week, so please forgive my scratchy voice!

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: Niblo's Garden

Before Niblo's, the premier pleasure garden was Vauxhall Garden, derived from a British garden of the same name. The one picture below is from the incarnation before it moved in 1807 to the area just below Astor Place, in what would become Lafayette Street. (NYPL)



The first theater on the Niblo property was a small stage he called 'Sans Souci'. Demand soon dictated that a larger venue be built. [NYPL]


From another illustration detailing the block just a few years later. The theater looks the same, but other buildings (possibly the saloon or a greenhouse?) have been built up around it. (from Merrycoz)


The garden was soon overtaken by a great hotel, the Metropolitan, which opened in 1852. This image is looking east, down Prince Street, with Broadway stretching to the left. NOTE: The original caption on this illustration says 1850, but the hotel would not be open for a couple years later. (NYPL)


This is one of the only photographs of Niblo's Theater, certainly from its last years, judging from the fashion of the day. The theater and the hotel were demolished in 1895. [Pic from here]


This poster is from a Boston production of 'The Black Crook', but it illustrates nicely the scope and theatricality of the production. The show was cobbled together using a poorly written German fantasia, a troupe of out-of-work Parisian dancers, and some original music. The show ran five and a half hours nightly and was a runaway hit. [Image from Kirafly Bros]


A costumed damsel (in photographic negative) from an early production of The Black Crook. [source]


An early program from Niblo's, from 1877, featuring stage rendition of Jules Verne's Around The World In 80 Days. I can only imagine the sets for this one! Also featuring the 'Greatest Terpsichordean Ensemble' and '250 Danseuses and a Superb Cast'.[Courtesy Jules Verne]

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Open House New York: Ten places to check out



It's the weekend! Why not hit a classic cemetery?

Doors will be opened and welcome mats laid out all over the city this weekend, October 9 and 10, during Open House New York, highlighting many historic locations that are closed to the public for most of the year, or available at previously limited hours. As usual, so many of the hot items tours are already booked up. But many things don't need reservations. Go to the Open House website for more information or pick up one of their guides.

Here's ten sites I recommend you check out, and I might see you there! You can check the Open House website for directions to each place:

Green-Wood Cemetery
500 25th St/ 5th Ave, Brooklyn
You can tour New York's most historic rural cemetery any day of the week, but this weekend there'll be performance art! Namely, Angels & Accordions, featuring dramatic dancers in white traipsing among the gravestones of Brooklyn's oldest families. This is apparently the last year the production will be staged here. While you're here check out the tombs of some of our favorite New Yorkers, including Boss Tweed, Henry Ward Beecher and Henry Steinway.
Hours: Sat 12:30, 4 pm Sun Rain date: Sun 12:30, 4 pm
Go to www.green-wood.com/store.php/store/category/2 for reservations

And if you can't get enough of famous New Yorkers in their graves, Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx is open too. If it's set up like it was a few years ago, you'll even gain admission to certain tombs to check out the Tiffany stained glass!


69th Regiment Armory
68 Lexington Ave/ E 26th St, Manhattan
There's a few Beaux-Arts armories around the city, but none have fascinated me more than this one, home of the legendary 1913 Armory Art Show, that essentially introduced the great names of modern art to New Yorkers. It's also been home games of the New York Knicks and a few very violent roller derby matches. Perhaps they'll let you bring your own skates.
Hours: Saturday and Sunday, from 9am to 5pm
Open access, with tours throughout the day.


Weeksville Heritage Center
1698 - 1708 Bergen St/ Buffalo Ave, Brooklyn
It's still incredible to me that these structures still exist, remnants of a thriving pre-Civil War, free black community in the mid-19th century. I recommend pairing this with a stroll through Brooklyn Heights to view the full spectrum of how Brooklynites lived in the 1860s-1880s.
Hours: Saturday only 11 am, 12, 1, 2 pm
Reservations required: events@weeksvillesociety.org.


Chrysler Building Lobby
405 Lexington Ave/ 42nd St, Manhattan
I think I recommended this one last year, but I don't care -- it's the Chrysler Building and deserves to be enjoyed from the inside as well as out. This is a perfect weekend to stand around gawking at the interiors without a security guard looking at you funny.
Hours: Saturday and Sunday 10 am - 4 pm
Open access all day
Lectures by historian Robert Klara: Sat 11 am, 2 pm, Sun 12 pm


Fairfax & Sammons Residence
183-185 W 4th St/ 7th Ave South, Manhattan
This one leans more towards the architecture buff, however it's a really beautiful example of an old carriage house (from 1880) and how they were cleverly turned into dwellings for human beings with the demise of horse power.
Hours: Saturday 11:30 am - 4:30 pm
Open access all day
Lectures and tours with architect/owner


Grand Lodge of Masons
71 W 23rd St/ 6th Ave, Manhattan
Of all the Open Houses I've participated in, this has got to be my favorite thing to do, and rather surprising given its location. It's bizarre, a lush, ornate 1912 headquarters for the Masons, with mysterious rooms that will have your imagination running in overdrive. You also get a little sales pitch for the Masons, which most of you won't be qualified for anyway.
Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 10 am - 3 pm
Tours throughout the day


Wave Hill
W 249th St/ Independence Ave, Bronx
I'm a big fan of the manicured grounds at Wave Hill -- the former summer home (above) of Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain -- and it comes alive in the fall. So it's worth checking out this weekend, when the gates are open for free.
Hours Saturday and Sunday 9 am - 5:30 pm
Tours on Sat & Sun, 11 am with historian Deirdre LaPorte.
Registration required for the tour: http://www.wavehill.org/

If you want more free garden action, the New York Botanical Garden (Bronx) will have its main garden grounds available for no cost to Open House visitors.

Louis Armstrong House Museum
34-56 107th St/ 37th Ave, Queens
Impress your friends by telling them you spent the afternoon in the home of Louis Armstrong. It's a loving shrine to one of the greatest musicians of all time and an intimate glimpse into a little music history.
HOURS: Saturday and Sunday 12-4pm
Sat & Sun tours every hour 12 - 4 pm.
Reservations required: info@louisarmstronghouse.org or 718.478.8274.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Gold-diggers in Union Square, in the hit play of 1878


'The Banker's Daughter' was the hot new play of 1878 by Bronson Howard, "then the best playwright in America." It played the Union Square Theater for over 140 performances and to rapturous praise.

The plot? "How a woman grows to love the older man she married for his money."

In 1899 Howard wrote a play about the life of Peter Stuyvesant.
----

I'm working through this week's new podcast and haven't had time to write any posts the past couple days. But I suspect if you enjoy hearing about early 19th-century entertainments that it'll be worth the wait for you. Thanks for your patience.

Play poster above courtesy Library of Congress

Monday, October 4, 2010

'Mad Men' notes: The once and future Hotel Pennsylvania


From a Statler Hotel advertisement in Life Magazine, dated January 10, 1949. Click in to the illustration to read the text

Every Monday I'll try and check in with the Mad Men episode from the night before and focus in on one or two historical references made on the show. Spoilers aplenty, so read no further if you don't want to know....

The offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce were so busy imploding this episode that the characters barely left their offices. Except of course for Roger Sterling, in the midst of a game-changing lie and scrambling to save face. He was supposed to be in Raleigh, NC, convincing his number one client, Lucky Strike, not to leave the agency. But he knows that conversation is futile, so Roger is literally hiding out in Manhattan, "at the Statler."

You may know this hotel by its first name -- which also happens to be its current name: the Hotel Pennsylvania. The grand, columned 22-floor accommodation was built in 1919 across the street from the newly built Pennsylvania Station and also shared the firm of McKim, Mead and White as its architect.

It was a Statler property from the start. Ellsworth Statler, a hotelier from Buffalo, leased the property from the Pennsylvania Railroad and managed it until his death in 1928. His company kept expanding, however, and in 1948 bought the hotel from the financially ailing Penn Railroad and placed their name over the awning. An easy decision: the Statler brand had built itself a sterling reputation by the 1940s.

Its most valuable asset was certainly the elegant Cafe Rouge ballroom which hosted the very finest in Big Band performers, most famously the orchestras of Glenn Miller and Count Basie.

By the 1950s, the Statler organization merged with the ascendant Hilton chain. And thus the Hotel Statler became the Hotel Statler Hilton until the 1980s. After a couple more managerial changes, it brought back the Hotel Pennsylvania name in the early 1990s.

Despite its longevity and glamorous reputation during the '30s and '40s -- its phone number is the subject of the classic song "Pennsylvania 6-5000" -- the hotel was rarely considered the highest standard of luxury accommodation.

In 2007, the building's owner Vornado announced it was ripping down the Hotel Pennsylvania and hoisting up a vast tower that would rival the Empire State Building in the midtown skyline. You would think that demolishing a McKim, Mead and White creation with the word 'Pennsylvania' in its name would rankle preservationists, but it seems there is little interest in saving it. “Preserving that hotel, which has become very seedy, is not anywhere near as important as reusing the Farley building and creating a new rail station.” And that's from an interview with the president of the Municipal Art Society.

The battle for Hotel Pennsylvania's fate is still ongoing. I would recommend checking out Curbed NY's coverage for the latest.

Incidentally, the Statler name has been immortalized with a Muppet, namely in the crotchety old men who sit in the theater balcony Statler and Waldorf.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Podcast Rewind: the glory days of Shea Stadium



A special illustrated version of our podcast on Shea Stadium (Episode #62) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed. Just hit play and images of the things we're talking about appear on any compatible media player.

As the Mets wrap up their season this weekend at their new home Citi Field, I thought I'd look back at the great stories contained in their old venue, Shea Stadium, a Robert Moses project that took years to get off the ground and has been populated with world class ball players, crazed Beatles fans, and one very mysterious black cat.

ALSO: A brief look at the creation of the Mets and the contributions of the stadium's namesake William Shea

Download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or you can listen to the cleaned up audio version right here: Shea Stadium

Postcard above courtesy the terrific travel image blog Viewliner Ltd.