Tuesday, January 31, 2012

As Garfield fights for life, Arthur lays low in Murray Hill

There are several enemies in Candice Millard's 'Destiny of the Republic', the terrific narrative history of the assassination of President James Garfield during the summer of 1881. The most obvious foe is the delusional Charles Guiteau, who believed himself the nation's savior when he shot President Garfield twice at a Washington DC train station on July 2, 1881. Then there were the microbial infections transmitted during improperly sanitized operations performed by Garfield's doctor at the White House, causing blood poisoning that worsened the president's suffering and ultimately killed him.

For the purposes on this blog, however, I was drawn into the tales of two New York politicians who became victims of rumor-mongering that summer. Powerful New York senator Roscoe Conkling was seen as a political rival of Garfield's, a thorn in the president's side, especially considering Conkling's own political protege -- his pawn, really -- was Garfield's vice president, Chester A. Arthur. Traumatic crises in this country are frequently accompanied by a churning undercurrent of suspicion and conspiracy, and Conkling and Arthur became victims of just such a shadowy accusation that summer.

Many believed Conkling to be culpable of the assassination attempt himself -- perhaps not of pulling the trigger, but of fostering and encouraging the discord that inspired it. It's not a stretch to consider Conkling an embodiment of the spoils system which determined hundreds of government jobs through political affiliation. Guiteau thought himself unfairly left out of that patronage system when he attacked Garfield that hot July day.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Fifth Avenue Hotel, the luxury accommodation at 23rd Street off Madison Square that became Conkling's second home and a regular scene of political intrigue for the Republican Party. Conkling endured the disintegration of his political career from his rooms here.

Meanwhile, many were mortified at the very thought of Arthur, hardly a universally admired figure, ascending to the presidency. While the president lay incapacitated in Washington, there was even debate as to when presidential responsibilities should cede to the vice president. Nobody seemed enthusiastic at the prospect of a President Chester A. Arthur.

Thus, Arthur essentially spent his summer hiding out in his townhouse at 123 Lexington Avenue (at right), fearful of seeming overly ambitious even as the fate of President Garfield seemed uncertain. On the day the president finally succumbed to his injuries, Arthur sobbed uncontrollably from his shuttered home as servants shooed away the press. Several hours later, he was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States on September 20, at 2:15 a.m, from the green-shuttered parlor of his home here.

'Destiny of the Republic' is a swift, thrilling read, certainly worthy of the praise it received when it was released last year, bringing in a cast of icons (including Alexander Graham Bell and Joseph Lister) to present a frightening world of medical uncertainty and strange madness.

Friday, January 27, 2012

History in the Making: Jackson Paint Splattering Edition

Tomorrow is Jackson Pollock's 100th birthday. A trip to MOMA is in order! Also check out this gorgeous collection of 'behind the scenes' photos. (Photo by Loomis Dean, Life)

I'm just getting back from a trip so the blog's been a little thin of articles this week. But we're back to normal here next week,  plus we are putting together a new podcast, discussing a major New York City landmark.  In the meantime....

Far Out, Man: The joy of writing about topics from the 60s and 70s is that people sometimes stumble onto old blog posts and recount their experiences in the comments section. For instance, you should really check out some of the comments on my December 2009 posting on the psychedelic New York nightclub Cerebrum. Thanks to the former patrons of the strange, strange little club who chimed in with their experiences! [Welcome To Cerebrum: Do You Have A Reservation?]

Setting Sail: The South Street Seaport Museum is open once again for business, thanks to the Museum of the City of New York. The uptown museum brings with it a few retooled former exhibitions from its galleries, as well as a photographic take on the Occupy Wall Street movement.  [South Street Seaport Museum]

Backstage Deli: The closing of an East Village deli reveals a startling secret -- a former movie theater from the 1950s. Thanks to Sierra for sending us the link via Facebook [Gothamist].

How The Other Half Reads: Jacob Riis enters the 21st century! His book 'How The Other Half Lives' comes to Kindle, iPad and other reading devices courtesy a new edition featuring extensive commentary and notes by author Lorenzo Dominguez.  [Download it here]

Illuminating: Today in 1880, Thomas Edison received a patent for the incandescent lamp. Fans of our Electric New York podcast will want to commemorate by turning on all their lights today. [via Twitter, Milstein Room @ NYPL}

And finally....

The King: Today marks a big day in Bowery Boys land. Our podcast on Robert Moses (Episode #100) officially becomes our most downloaded show of all time, supplanting our Halloween show Haunted Tales of New York (Episode #91).

Here's a little Moses for your wet Friday: The parks commissioner appeared as a guest on the February 1953 episode of the panel program Longines Chronoscope:

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Bowery Boys -- now on Australian radio!

At the New York World's Fair 1939-40: Australia makes a stylish, woolen debut, thanks to renown designer Douglas Annand. (Photo by Robert Coates, courtesy the Powerhouse Museum. You can check out other images of this curious pavilion here.)

 After many years as a mere podcast, The Bowery Boys: New York City History will be making making its debut on the national airwaves. The catch is -- those national airwaves are in Australia!

We're grateful to have listeners all around the world, and now those New York junkies listening in Australia will now be able to hear our show on a new program on Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National, Australia's pubic radio.

Top of the Pods spotlights a selection of programs from around the world, and we'll be joining the show monthly via some of the greatest-hits of our back catalog of podcasts.

We debut in Australia this Tuesday, Jan. 31, at 2 pm (or, if you're listening in from New York: Jan. 30, Monday 10pm EST), when host Robbie Buck will present our show on Tin Pan Alley. We'll be paired up with a program from London, The Hackney Podcast, exploring the historic neighborhood through its transition as a 'host borough' of the 2012 Olympic Games.

If you're in Australia, you can listen in this Tuesday via one of these major frequencies, including 576AM in Sydney and 621AM in Melbourne.

You can listen online via one of these streams. The show will also be re-broadcast in Australia on Sunday, Feb 5 at 3 a.m. (Saturday, Feb. 4, at 11 a.m. in New York)

We're currently scheduled to appear once a month. Thanks to ABC for helping us make our international debut. I will clearly need to make vacation plans to hear the show live from the beaches of Sydney sometime very soon!

And a little bit on the picture above: You can look here to read an article from the Sydney Morning Tribute about the debut of the Australian Pavilion at the 1939-40 World's Fair, "not only the most interesting and informative exhibition that Australia has presented in any country, but one of the most attractive at the Fair." In fact, according to Architecture Australia, "the pavilion was consigned to an interior within a building, which was shared with New Zealand.....From outside it appeared as if Britain occupied the entire complex, with Australia and New Zealand literally subjects beneath and to either side."

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sugar high: Yonkers boys, up to no good

A band of junior ruffians, gathered around the detritus of a sugar plant in Yonkers, on the Hudson River, c. 1906. I can't quite make out what they're doing, and I possibly don't wanna know. This is very possibly an old plant located in same area as the present corporate headquarters of American Sugar Refining, just a couple miles north of the Bronx border.

American Sugar owns the Domino Sugar brand name today. Domino, of course, grew to sweet prominence in the late 19th century along the Williamsburg waterfront.

Photo by Lewis Wicks Hine

Monday, January 23, 2012

'Mad Men' returns: a guide to eating (and drinking) options

Drama for dinner: 'Mad Men' meals go down best with fifteen cocktails

AMC's 'Mad Men' returns for its fifth season this March. Until somebody goes ahead and develops a TV show about Peter Stuyvesant and New Amsterdam, the award-winning Madison Avenue drama is the closest we'll get to straight-up New York City history TV. The writers cleverly embed the action within very specific 60s locations throughout the city. During the season I try and delve into those locations in our regular 'Mad Men' feature

So what, then, to make of 'The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook: Inside The Kitchens, Bars and Restaurants of Mad Men', by Judy Gelman and Peter Zheutlin? My first thought, naturally, was, "They eat on 'Mad Men'?" They certainly flirt over dinners at times. Carla, the Draper's housekeeper, tortures over hot meals that often get uneaten as Betty sulks and Don swallows down bourbon.

But 'Mad Men' is a show of lounges and restaurants, of decorum and indulgence, adrift in a rising stream of booze. It's also a show of dizzying, if cynical, nostalgia. And that's the secret of this fun little volume. The particular dishes featured in the book may have been seen or mentioned on the show. But the recipes themselves are straight from the kitchens of New York's most famous eateries and from original 1960s magazines and cookbooks.

The authors frame each dish within the context of a certain episode. For instance, a recipe on gazpacho and rumaki is prefaced with the description of Season 2, Episode 8, the episode where Betty presents dishes from around the world to her guests (including, you may remember, the at-the-time somewhat exotic Heineken beer.)

The recipes aren't from Betty's kitchen, but from actual 1960s magazine articles. Sources include 'The Kennedy Style', a 1962 Ebony Magazine cookbook, the 1960's 'How America Eats', among a great many others. Original dishes from New York's great restaurants make an appearance here too -- steak tartar and hearts of palm salad from Sardi's, fettuccine alfredo from Angelo's, chicken Kiev from the Russian Tea Room, Caesar salad from Keens Steakhouse, and of course, the original Waldorf salad and sold Amandine from the Waldorf=Astoria.

Betty Crocker, Julia Child, Amy Vanderbilt -- all the icons of 60s cuisine and ettiquete are represented. Naturally, this means that few dishes are heart healthy. Butter and red meat are a defining theme.

A more classic selection of original New York recipes has perhaps never been assembled. One might squabble over the fact that most of this has nothing much to do with 'Mad Men' itself. But let that slide, relax and have a drink from the guide's cocktail menu, featuring the how-tos on such classic sips as the Stork Club Cocktail, the 21 Club Bloody Mary and the Classic Algonquin Cocktail (whiskey, vermouth and pineapple juice), all sourced from the original establishments.

I was a sucker for this kind of retro mixology back in the days of the '90s retro 'bachelor pad' craze, and 'The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook' could fit right in with your old Esquivel CDs. But this is an entertaining collection of New York recipes, well-researched, and ready for your weekend soirees and viewing parties..

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A century ago, excitement builds as the Woolworth ascends

The Woolworth Building, as it appeared on January 20, 1912 (Courtesy LOC)

The Woolworth Building was the biggest story in real estate one hundred years ago, long before it was even completed.

By the waning moments of 1911, something finally began to rise out of the belching smoke and clutter collecting at the northwest corner of Broadway and Barclay Street . The building's architect Cass Gilbert was busy at work drafting the details of the interior, and as the tower rose, so too did the cost. Luckily, retail king Frank W. Woolworth would eventually pay the entire bill ($13.5 million, from an original project cost of $5 million) in cash.

In a Jan 7, 1912 article, the New York Times assessed the state of real estate in the city, observing that the greatest developments for the year were in 'apartment houses and lofts', particularly on the Upper West Side and the neighborhoods west of Broadway between 14th Street and 42nd Street. While residential property was the hot commodity, they made note of seven 'purely office structures' that were also debuting. Of those listed, the clear standout was the new office building being designed for Woolworth.

The New York Sun was also dazzled by the Woolworth's construction that month, announcing its construction as the crown of the 'world's greatest building construction era'. Any firm hired for the project promptly touted its involvement in full-page advertisements. Otis Elevators boasted of its 'Marvelous Vertical Railways ... That Are to "Whiz" the Army of Workers Up With Lightning Speed.'

It would take over fifteen months from that moment for the Woolworth Building to be completed, and what a game-changer it was when it officially opened on April 24, 1913. The tallest building in the world until 1930, the Woolworth is also distinctive to this day for its monolithic surface of terra cotta, built before the requirements of setbacks turned future skyscrapers into virtual 'wedding cakes'.

But back in January 1912, as you can see, it rose on a few floors from street-level, not even as high as the City Hall Post Office which sat across the street. The picture below (from NYPL), taken over a month later, indicates its proximity to the post office:

(As for the picture at top, the Library of Congress dates it as January 20, 1912, while the New York Public Library has it as December 28, 1911. You get the idea. Regardless, it's a photo by favorite photographer Irving Underhill.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Notes from the podcast (#133): Red Hook, Brooklyn

A haunting snapshot of the Atlantic Docks, circa 1870-80s (possibly as early as 1872) photo by George Bradford Brainerd (courtesy the Brooklyn Museum

Quite a few notes on the podcast this week! There were a lot of little details I found interesting that didn't make the cut:

Before the Water Taxi: One of the more enlightening tales left on the cutting-room floor was that of the Hamilton Avenue Ferry, the 1846 Atlantic Docks ferry line that linked Red Hook with downtown Manhattan in much the same way the IKEA Water Taxi does today. As the ferry made "the shortest and most direct route from New York" to the newly constructed Green-Wood Cemetery, it also became the method by which many bodies were transported there.

Fiery renovation: A stalwart of the old community is Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church (built in 1896) right off of Coffey Park, the third incarnation after the congregation grew out of the first building (originally built in 1855) and fire destroyed the second. That fire, incidentally, was allegedly caused by combustible materials workers were using to renovate the structure.

Goodbye Vienna: A vestige of World War I hysteria exists within the name of Red Hook's Lorraine Street. According to Brooklyn By Name, the street was once named Vienna Street but was deemed 'offensive' during the war and was changed to reflect the area of Alsace-Lorraine, which entered French possession after the war.

What's My Name?: I mentioned a couple facts about the neighborhood of Carroll Gardens (once considered a part of Red Hook), although we hope to elaborate further one day on a show on South Brooklyn. The name Carroll Gardens, like that of its neighbors Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, was a real-estate invention which the community quickly embraced. (Contrast this with modern failures of real-estate re-branding, like ChumboBelDel and LoDel.) You might be interested in reading Carroll Garden's original 1973 historic designation.

Below: I'm not quite sure of the story behind this sunken squatters home, taken on Van Brunt Street from the year 1900 (courtesy the Brooklyn Museum

Brooklyn Museum: Brooklyn scenes; buildings

Further reading: For more information on the corruption of the  New York and Brooklyn waterfronts , I highly endorse Nathan Ward's 'Dark Harbor'. It's brilliantly lucid and immediate. In particular, he focuses some attention on the disappearance of Columbia Street longshoreman Pietro Panto and vividly describes a mob hit that took place in a building in Manhattan's West Village, in a building next door to the treasured piano bar Marie's Crisis. There are several books that feature chapters on Red Hook history, but a dedicated book on the subject is sorely needed. In the meantime, I recommend the short essay by Jerry Nachman that appears in "Brooklyn: A State of Mind," about, of all things, an air conditioning crisis!

Maggie Blanck has an extraordinary web resource that begins as a genealogy of her family and elaborates into a history of Red Hook's industrial giants. And for those of you who are fascinated by late-century street-gang history, the website Stone Greasers has an exhaustive list of gang names, many more unusual than anything you'd find in the movie The Warriors.

Red Hook as inspiration: Several sources, both on Brooklyn history and film history, discuss Red Hook's impact on the work of both Arthur Miller and Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter of 'On The Waterfront'.

 In 2009, a unique restaging of 'On The Waterfront' took place aboard the Waterfront Barge Museum in Red Hook, a production that then floated to Manhattan and Hoboken waterfronts for further performances, "all places whose dock wars echoed in Terry [Malloy's] story," according to Ward.

Elia Kazan's Oscar-winning film is embedded with influences from the entire New York waterfront struggle. For instance, Karl Malden's Father Barry is transparently inspired by Father Corridan, an activist waterfront priest from Manhattan's west side. (Author J.T. Fisher focuses on Corridan's contribution in his new book 'On The Irish Waterfront'.) Of course no inspiration was greater than Malcolm Johnson's now classic series of articles for the New York Sun in the late 1940s, a series which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 -- coincidentally the same year that Miller won for 'Death of A Salesman'!

I suppose there is some controversy in some circles regarding whether Schulberg and Kazan 'stole' the idea of 'Waterfront' from Miller's 'The Hook', but I'm not touching that. However you can read about it yourself in Stephen Schwartz's argumentative 2005 article.

Thanks to commenter Rob Hill who calls to attention another fascinating literary Red Hook reference. In 1957, Harlon Ellison, one of America's great science fiction and crime novelists, literally went undercover with a Red Hook street gang called The Barons to find inspiration for his book 'Web of the City' and, later, in the non-fictional account Memos From Purgatory. Ellison's entire life would probably make a good subject for a podcast one day. Thanks Rob!

Further listening: This show shares many similar themes with our past shows on Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Corlears Hook and the Pirates of the East River. Hmm, and let's just say, we're probably coming back to the waterfront sooner than later this year....

Community vs Neighborhood: One listener Carolina from PortSide NY had some strong objections to my characterization of Red Hook, particularly my focus on the neighborhood's crime and gang activity. I'm excerpting part of her letter, as it highlights a challenge that Tom and I often tackle with our podcast:

"Red Hook housed great poverty, but for decades was more mixed economically than your focus on gangland stories describes. Personally, I find what is most distinctive about Red Hook over the years is the capacity of this small place to hold AT THE SAME TIME a striking economic range in its residents and a striking range of land use from major industry to residences."

That is an undoubtedly true statement, especially when you compare it to the fate of other dockside neighborhoods, like Corlears Hook and Water Street in Manhattan. I find there are two ways to accurately tell a story of a place like Red Hook -- from an organic, street-level or 'ground up' perspective (what I call 'a community history') and from a macro-view, as a component of the larger forces of the city which contain it (or 'a neighborhood history').

As the creators of a New York City history podcast, we opt to recount neighborhood histories, as New Yorkers and those who love this city are familiar with the mechanisms of change that have influenced it. In this decision, we understand that the normalcy of a place can get sometimes overlooked. (After all, not every person in Five Points was a gang member or a prostitute either.)

However, the sad truth is, Red Hook was for many years nationally known as a blighted neighborhood, and it was important to inspect both how it got that way and how that condition demanded some very unique revitalization plans.  I hope I have shown how essential Red Hook was to New York, and continues to be.  We encourage you to wander around the waterfront on a sunny afternoon sometime and, in particular, check out places like the Waterfront Barge Museum.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Red Hook, Brooklyn: A rich seafaring history, organized crime and the isolation of a beleaguered neighborhood

PODCAST Red Hook, Brooklyn, the neighborhood called by the Dutch 'Roode Hoek' for its red soil, became a key port during the 19th century, a stopping point for vessels carry a vast array of raw goods from the interior of the United States along the Erie Canal. In particular, two manmade harbors were among the greatest developments in Brooklyn history, stepping in when Manhattan's own decaying wharves became too overcrowded.

With these basins came a mix of ethnicities to Brooklyn, and along with new styles of row houses came the usual assortment of vices -- saloons and brothels along Hamilton Avenue. This fostered the development of crime along the docks, and Red Hook soon witnessed firsthand the opening salvos of 20th Century organized crime.

How did the history-rich, nautical neighborhood go from a booming center of employment to one of the worst neighborhoods in the United States by the 1990s? And can some surprising twists of fate from the last twenty years help Red Hook return to its glory days?

Featuring: Revolutionary War forts, shantytowns, Vaseline factories, famous gangsters, the gateway to Hell, and cheap Swedish furniture!

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: Red Hook: Brooklyn on the Waterfront

Notes, clarifications, sources, and additional information will be posted next week. Photo above: Taken on Van Brunt street, 1/11/2012

 The Atlantic Docks, illustration taken from Booth's History of New York. (care of NYPL)

Modern living, circa 1939. The Red Hook Houses at their debut. Although the housing development cleared away a great many dilapidated homes -- following a common model of urban redevelopment -- the uninspired uniformity would put a dent in the neighborhood's original character. (Courtesy LOC)

The Red Hook Play Center opened in 1936, the final of 11 swimming pools Robert Moses built during his early years as parks commissioner. Its Art Moderne style made it a beautiful if curious addition to the neighborhood.

The Erie Basin, a clutter of vessels and piers, is strangely beautiful from overhead in relation to the Manhattan skyline. (Pic courtesy Wired NY)

The crisis of organized crime and corruption within the longshoreman's union along the Brooklyn waterfront was an inspiration for many writers, including Arthur Miller (below) in his unproduced screenplay 'The Hook' -- referring both to the neighborhood and the longshoreman's "ever-present baling hook". Later, Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg found similar inspiration for the Oscar winning film 'On The Waterfront', loosely basing events on situations that took place along the entire New York and Brooklyn waterfront. (The film was made in Hoboken, but there are of course famous shots of the Manhattan skyline.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Aaron Burr, Staten Island, and the tale of his death mask

Yes, Hamilton fans, we are a proud people, judging from the many notes and supportive comments yesterday left on the Facebook page on the birthday of Alexander Hamilton, tinged with strong anti-Aaron Burr sentiment. But, from our comfortable vantage of the future, have we been too harsh on the killer Vice President?

Sure, he absolutely got away with murder. But it was, after all, a duel, willingly engaged by both participants, however misguided. Murder charges against Burr were eventually dropped, but he obviously avoided New York for many years.

His later misadventures out West -- his failed, confusing efforts to infiltrate Spanish territory and allegedly form a new government in 1806 -- just slathered on further scorn and distrust for the once respected lawyer. Three years after killing Alexander Hamilton, Burr was brought to federal trial for treason. He was eventually acquitted due to lack of credible evidence, much to Thomas Jefferson's chagrin.

After traveling through Europe and eventually going broke, Burr returned to New York and married the alleged 'black widow' Eliza Jumel. They divorced just four months later. The Morris-Jumel Mansion, his home during that time, is today less than two miles away from Alexander's prized Hamilton Grange. They are two of the oldest homes still standing in northern Manhattan. (The Dyckman Farmhouse , in Inwood on 204th Street, is older than Hamilton's house.)

Aaron Burr died in 1836 in Staten Island at a boardinghouse in the Port Richmond neighborhood, not far from the Bayonne Bridge.  The boardinghouse later became the St. James Hotel, where guests could specifically ask to stay in Burr's room for an evening. And sleep in the same bed! A sign even hung over the mantel, "Aaron Burr died in this room."

The former Vice President spent his last, lonely days in this particular room, shying away from curious locals and pouring over old love letters from Eliza. According to a 1895 New York Times article on the subject of his 'deathbed', Burr was hounded by pious ministers who wished to save his soul and release him from his crippling depression.

The article also highlights a very bizarre visitor. One guest at the boardinghouse had an unnatural fascination with Burr, but never spoke to him and kept quietly to himself. When the landlady discovered that Burr was died in his room, the stranger suddenly appeared at the door, opened his satchel and removed the materials to make a plaster death mask of the Vice President. I believe this may be the morbid mask in question!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

To Mr. Alexander Hamilton, on his birthday

"A garden, you know, is a very usual refuge of a disappointed politician. Accordingly, I have purchased a few acres about nine miles from town, have built a house, and am cultivating a garden." Alexander Hamilton, in a letter to South Carolina statesman Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, regarding Hamilton Grange

Today's the birthday of Alexander Hamilton, New York's greatest Founding Father (sorry, John Jay) and a man that embodied the best of American potential with the weaknesses of a modern politician. I continue to find him a fascinating, unusual, frustrating and remarkable historical figure.

The National Park Service is throwing a 257th birthday party for Alexander Hamilton this Saturday at the Founding Father's old home Hamilton Grange, newly moved to St. Nicholas Park. There will be a local historian garbed as Alexander Hamilton. I will be there to get his autograph. Let's get this party STARTED. [Read the flyer here.]

Fellow Hamilton-phile and 'In The Heights' creator Lin-Manuel Miranda asks a question I too have pondered: "Why hasn't anybody done a hip-hop version of Alexander Hamilton's life?" [New York Times]

If you'd like to take a little somber stroll today, it's about a 40 minute walk from the spot near the Meatpacking District where Alexander Hamilton died to his eternal resting place in the Trinity Church Cemetery. Although he was famously shot by Vice President Aaron Burr in Weehawken, his mortally wounded body was taken to the home of William Bayard "just below the present Gansevoort Street. . . close to the present Horatio Street" where he died. There is a house at 82 Jane Street with a plaque that presumes to mark the spot as the place where Hamilton died, but this has largely been debunked. What is it with dead Founding Fathers and inaccurate plaques? (See: Nathan Hale)

In our third podcast -- and the oldest one currently available for download -- we spent some time discussing Mr. Hamilton.  Listen to it at your peril; we were very green at this podcasting thing back then. Also, my first proper post on this blog (dated July 5, 2007) was about Mr. Hamilton. Frankly, we do a much better job discussing a building that once served as Hamilton's temporary Treasury office, in our podcast on Fraunces Tavern. And after you listen, go for a visit!

And for some American history laced with camp value, here's some juicy scenes from the 1931 melodramatic biography on the life of Alexander Hamilton, starring George Arliss as the title hero. Interestingly, most of the cast is British.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The New York Giants, before they were giants

At the legendary Polo Grounds 1925, where the Giants football team (after a couple false starts) finally make their mark on the sport.

The New York Giants, currently in the playoffs and on their way to tackle the formidable Green Bay Packers this Sunday, are football's oldest existing NFL team, and among its greatest -- with seven total championship victories since their debut in 1925.  But that original team, dazzling with such stars as Jim Thorpe at their original home at the Polo Grounds, was not New York's first professional football team. It wasn't even New York's first football team called the Giants!

The first try at a New York Giants football club came in 1919. They were a spin-off of the New York Giants baseball team*, a club considered the best of its day, dominating the sport from the late 19th century and into the 1910s.  Like the baseball franchise, the young Giants football team was to have played at the Polo Grounds as well, the location for many college football contests of the day. But those college games were played on Saturday, and on the month of October 1919, all Saturdays were fully booked.

So the Giants were scheduled to debut on a Sunday, against an Ohio team called the Massillon Tigers. This seemed possible, as team organizers understood that New York's blue law, prohibiting Sunday play, had been removed from the books. But the city quickly clarified: the law had made way for Sunday baseball, not Sunday football.

Since football was more popularly considered a college pastime -- many still questioned the validity of so-called 'professional' teams -- nobody budged for the football Giants. And thus, the game was cancelled, and the team disbanded before they even hit the field.

The team's coach, Harvard football star Charles Brickley, tried again two years later, managing to cobble together twenty-four players, a squad that is sometimes referred to as 'Brickley's Giants' to distinguish them from the 1925 team. And people often choose to distinguish them, because Brickley's Giants were a utter disaster. As one of 21 teams with the American Professional Football Association during its second season, Brickley's team lost both its regular-season games. The Buffalo team actually destroyed them, 55-0.

During a bout with Jim Thorpe's Cleveland team, The New York Times noted, "The game was lopsided and had little to excite even the most rabid of rooters....[L]ittle can be said for the brand of football displayed."

They were more successful at some exhibition games, such as the one advertised below in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Brickley's 'Brooklyn Giants' (as they played at Ebbets Field by this time) against the Governors Island 'Army All Stars', whom they defeated. (Thanks to Paul Luchter for this image.) 

The following year, the American Professional Football Association changed its name to the National Football League, but Brickley's team never made it that far, dropping out for good before the new season. They did continue to play exhibition games, but eventually disbanded by 1923. After these two disastrous attempts, nobody would attempt another Giants franchise for another couple years, when former newsie-turned-bookmaker Tim Mara joined the ascendant NFL with a third go at a New York team. And you know what they say about the third time.

By the way, the Maras have kept the Giants in the family since its 1925 debut. Tim's grandson John Mara is an owner along Steve Tisch (whose last name should be familiar to any students at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts).

*The original Giants baseball team now haunts and torments New York sports fans today in the form of the San Francisco Giants. The franchise moved to the West Coast in 1958.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Fifth Avenue Hotel: Opulence atop a potter's field, and accommodations for heated Republican power brokering

By the date of this photo (1890), the Fifth Avenue Hotel, facing Madison Square Park, had already seen its share of American political drama.

The double-breasted, cigar-chewing gentlemen who gathered in the sumptuous rooms of the Fifth Avenue Hotel were occasional connoisseurs of New York City history, and in particular, these amateur historians spoke of the very street corner where their hotel stood.

Before Madison Square, when the area was a barren parade ground, one Corporal Thompson opened a roadhouse and stagecoach station in the area that was to become 23rd Street and and Fifth Avenue. Many spoke fondly of Thompson's establishment, called Madison Cottage, because they remembered the place as young boys. They recalled the area's rural quality, with carved rectangular blocks carved into the land and a dirt-road Broadway meandering north.

But that was the 1840s. Forty years later, Madison Square Park was the center of New York, a focal point of class, business and luxury that stretched south to Union Square, through that attractive collection of fine stores known as Ladies Mile, and up Fifth Avenue into the fabulous mansions of the rich. And dead center of all that activity was the Fifth Avenue Hotel, not only the "finest [hotel] in this metropolis", the "leading hotel of the world ," but quite simply one of the most surprising stages for American politics of the mid and late 19th century.

Hotels were fast becoming the center of New York life from at least the days of the Astor House, located near City Hall, in the 1830s. Within two decades, trendy new hotels (such as the St. Nicholas and the Metropolitan) spread up along Broadway and eventually clustered around Union Square. By the Civil War, the thrust of New York society was so defined by them that Confederate conspirators tried setting fire to a several of them.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel opened in 1859, the venture of wealthy merchant Amos Richards Eno, who accurately gambled that the center of city commerce would soon settle at 23rd Street. So confident a speculator was Eno that he moved from his brownstone at 74 Broadway (the first New York brownstone, he claimed) to a massive home nearby the hotel.

Some thought it unwise to build so far north, and when workers unearthed dozens of skeletons during construction -- the area once being a potter's field -- the corner was even considered cursed. Eno defied the naysayers, pouring his wealth into the hotel to make it the most modern, most luxurious accommodation of the day.

The Italian exterior was awash in five stories of imported marble, while austere, carpeted interiors of French design drew comparisons to European palaces. Guests enjoyed reading rooms, a luxurious bar, a barber shop, a dedicated telegraph office, and a variety of dining and drawing rooms, not to mention the first passenger elevator ever built in the United States, a steam-powered monstrosity whisking passengers to their floor.  The private quarters were soundproofed, fixtured with the modern innovations in plumbing, and lavishly decorated, becoming to many "the safest, the most healthy and most comfortable hotel in the world."

As the finest hotel in the city in the post Civil War years, it naturally became a magnet for politicians and financiers. Of all the 'backrooms' of American politics, none were as gleaming as the Fifth Avenue. Bankers huddled in the legendary 'parlor D. R.' during the tense days of the financial panic of 1873. In particular, the hotel became a de facto headquarters for New York Republicans. While often secondary to the city's Democrats -- this being the era of Tammany Hall's swelling power -- Republicans were frequently in control of state government, and the Fifth Avenue Hotel became a smoky center of political wheeling and dealing.

During the 1870s, New York republicans became national power brokers and frequently hashed out crises here at the Fifth Avenue. In the years before the Waldorf-Astoria, presidents and dignitaries all stayed here during visits. Seamier political maneuvers took place in the chambers of prominent politicians who held court here, including the inimitable Roscoe Conkling (at left), senator of New York and leader of the Republican faction known as the Stalwarts.

When fractured Republicans at their convention in 1880 nominated non-Stalwart James Garfield for president, the nominee had to basically grovel for their support by symbolically 'kissing the ring' of the Stalwarts during a visit to the Fifth Avenue Hotel, partially agreeing to their system of patronage and taking Conkling ally Levi Morton as a member of his cabinet. (Garfield later backed out on this arrangement.)

Another frequent guest here was Chester A. Arthur, Garfield's eventual vice president. When Arthur became president after Garfield's assassination by Charles Guiteau (who had himself wandered the hotel's hallways in delusion), he would set up his entire administration here during visits to his adopted city.

By the 1890s, a corridor of the hotel known as the 'Amen Corner' was a famous congregation spot for Republican political bosses and reporters. As they frequently powwowed here on Sundays, gatherers would caustically shout 'Amen!' during heated discussions.

The hotel became a magnet for shenanigans of all varieties. In 1893, a couple hundred proponents of a U.S. monetary silver standard erupted into a riot that included two U.S. senators. The bank robber Robert Montague was arrested here in 1896 thanks to a tip-off from a chambermaid. An early vestige of baseball's National League met here annually, and the national pool competitions were held in the hotel's billiard room.

By the new century, of course, the locus of New York activity was hastily moving uptown, and the Fifth Avenue Hotel was deemed a relic, even as a brand new structure across the street -- the Flatiron Building -- was being proclaimed the finest building in the city. In 1908 the Fifth Avenue Hotel was torn down and replaced by the 16-story Toy Center (called the Fifth Avenue Building back in the day), the epicenter of toy manufacturing for much of the 20th century.

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library (source)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year's Murder: Return of the Tong Wars 1912

"On New Year's Day they presented any celebration in Chinatown with fireworks. There have been murders sometimes when the whole joyful populace of the crooked streets of Doyers, Mott and Pell have been patriotically celebrating with gunpowder an historic anniversary." -- New York Times, 1/16/1912

The streets of Chinatown were relatively quiet in 1911, a delicate truce drawn between the neighborhood's two rival gangs, the On Leong and the Hip Sing tongs. But few strolled down narrow Pell Street without fear that old rivalries might return. Fierce battles had erupted throughout the past decade, culminating in dozens of bloody altercations throughout 1909 and 1910. (We outlined some of the violence in our podcast last year on Manhattan's Chinatown.)

A committee of Chinese businessmen finally mediated a truce between the two tongs, but few suspected that hostilities would disappear. The control of On Leong Tong, who had once ruled the Chinese underworld for much of the 1890s, had been whittled away by the interloping Hip Sing Tong. Hip Sing's leader, the flamboyant Mock Duck, often meandered down Pell conspicuously garbed in diamonds and a chain mail vest.

Although Hip Sing was subject to the truce, their allies -- and the only other Chinatown tong of significant influence -- the Four Brothers, were not. This imbalance of control, favoring Hip Sing and keeping Mock Duck in power, was bound to erupt.

At right: Pell Street in 1899. The address 21 Pell Street is out of frame, just to the right.

And so it did one evening one hundred years ago, on January 5, 1912, at Mock Duck's fan-tan parlor at 21 Pell Street, today the location of the First Chinese Baptist Church. Members of Hip Sing were gathered there, merrily gambling the night away under the glow of dangling light bulbs when three assassins from the On Leong Tong, armed with their trademark Smith & Wessons, burst in and began shooting.

Mock Duck himself may have been in the room that evening. He was certainly there, calmly sipping tea when police arrived. One of his gang members, Lung You, lay dead on the floor, while another, the 'president' of Hip Sing, Chung Pun Sing, was seriously wounded and fled to his home.

Witnesses led police to On Leong's headquarters at 14 Mott Street. By the end of the day, over two dozen Chinese gangsters and bystanders had been arrested, including Mock Duck himself. He was charged with owning a gambling parlor, a fact that could not have been surprising to anybody at the Elizabeth Street police station. He was quickly released.

Top pic courtesy Library of Congress.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012! Will this be the year New York gets moving sidewalks?

Have you ever walked down a New York sidewalk and thought, "I'm wasting so much energy creating my own forward motion. Why can't the sidewalk do some of the work?" In one vision of the future, city sidewalks operated as a conveyor belt, whisking people to their destination in a steady stream of moving seats.

This wacky and most likely death-defying public transport was seriously considered in 1903 as a way to link the three downtown bridges -- the previously built Brooklyn Bridge, the brand new Williamsburg Bridge and the yet-to-be-completed Manhattan Bridge. This 'system of moving platforms or continuous trains' would flow from the Williamsburg Bridge terminal down to Bowling Green via underground tunnels. In essence, a subway without the subway car.

Proposals called for six miles of platform that connected to both elevated trains stations and, presumably, the actual subway platform under construction at City Hall. Passengers got to their seats by a double layer of 'stepping platforms' which moved at different speeds -- 2 1/2, 5 and 7 miles per hour. In theory, one simply alighted from one conveyor to the next. Imagine how fun this would be with a baby carriage or an armful of packages!

Harper's was confident this mode of transport was on its way, citing the use of 'continuous trains' at the Chicago and Paris Expositions and the fervent support by prominent New York businessmen. No less than New York's bridge commissioner Gustav Lindenthal briefly promoted the plan.

Alas, this dizzying and complicated form of basic transportation was never realized. Interestingly, plans for the Second Avenue Subway below Delancey Street closely mirror the original route of the moving sidewalk. And there are already serious plans for a subterranean park on the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge, where the moving sidewalk was to have terminated. So this horror show may yet see the light of day!

Illustration courtesy New York Public Library digital collection