Thursday, October 23, 2014

Valley of Ashes

The town of Flushing was founded in 1645. The area -- located in Queens between Long Island and New York City -- was a tidal basin and estuary, as well as the bridge between two different ecosystems: aquatic and terrestrial. It was cultivated by farmers who harvested crops of hay, salt, and shellfish for over two centuries. 

In 1909, officials in Tammany Hall gave a man named John “Fishhooks” A. McCarthy permission to use the site as a  dumping ground for ashes retrieved from Brooklyn’s coal-burning furnaces via his company Brooklyn Ash Removal. (His nickname comes from his alleged “habit of thrusting his fists immutably into his pockets at the first sighting of any due bill.” (NYT))

Corona Ash Dump. Image via
By the 1920s the area had been transformed into a giant ash dump, and in 1925, served as one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's most poignant landscapes in The Great Gatsby:

       "About half way between West Egg and New York the motorway hastily joins the railroad
        and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of
        land. This is a valley of ashes -- a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and
        hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising
        smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling
        through the powdery air."

Poverty is cultivated in Fitgerald's valley of ashes where a steady stream of residents and workers, each covered in the rest of the city's filth, wander a barren landscape, and where the American Dream is totally unattainable. It's also an allegory for the "fear in a handful of dust" found in T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" published a few years before Gatsby.

Corona Ash Dump, 1924. Screenshot form this map

The Brooklyn Ash Removal dumped at a rate of 100 railroad cars-full per day, creating 90-foot mountains of industrial debris and destroying the local wildlife and ecosystem.  City reformers shut the operation down in 1934and purchased the land. Robert Moses spearheaded the effort to turn the area into parkland and use is as the site for the 1939 World’s Fair. Those efforts included: leveling the ash dump, filling most of the meadow, creating two lakes north of the filled land, building new approaches and traffic arteries, eliminating extensive sewage pollution, constructing a permanent boat basin; constructing permanent utilities for the park, and temporary ones for the fair; extensive landscaping.

New York World's Fair, 1939. Image: NARA, via flickr

After the 1939 World's Fair, a few of the buildings were used as the temporary headquarters for the United Nations. The U.N. moved to its permanent Manhattan location in 1951.

Flushing Meadows Park just after the United Nations left the area, 1951. Image: screenshot from this map

**For more information on the state of NYC parks before they were parks, check out this Parks Department page.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Halloween Greetings

This post also appears on the Bryant Park blog

Go get your stamps! You only have two weeks left to make sure everyone you know has a Halloween Greeting card to open on the day of. Here's some inspiration from decades past:

Witch on an anxious pumpkin led by a team of frenetic bats:
via the NYPL
 Flying machines and owls during the early days of airplanes and WWI:
[1914-1917] via NYPL

Half Valentine, half Halloween greeting with nice beard detail on the gent, and a little side eye from the lady:
Hallowe'en Greetings, 1908 via NYPL

 "Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble."
Halloween postcard, 1910. Image via Pisark

Mean mugging the interloper:
Image via

Looking for a Halloween card for this year? The cards of today are less creepy and more cute, but this furry cat face card and this pug-themed card are a bit of both.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Empire Views

On March 17, 1930 construction began on the Empire State Building. It was built by the newly formed Empire State, Inc., who took their name from the moniker bestowed on New York State by George Washington in 1785. Designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon (who also created another 34th Street District treasure, the Gimbels Traverse) and built during the Great Depression, the new office tower became a symbol of perseverance and hope. E.B. White wrote of it in his 1949 essay "Here is New York": "The Empire State Building shot twelve hundred and fifty feet into the air when it was madness to put out as much as six inches of new growth."

It opened just over  a year later on May 1, 1931. Over 5,000 visitors stood in line at the street level on a rainy day to view the city from what was then the tallest man-made structure in the world (NYT, 1931-05-04).
Visitors to the 86th Floor on opening day, May 1, 1931. Image: tumblr
The 86th floor observation deck immediately became a popular destination for tourists. A photographer was on hand to capture the moment, which was then printed on a postcard.
Visitor Postcard photo taken on the Empire State Building observation deck, 86th Floor, May 8, 1934; front. Image: private collection (Pisark's)
Visitor Postcard photo taken on the Empire State Building observation deck, 86th Floor, May 8, 1934; back. Image: private collection (Pisark's)
Visitor Postcard, Empire State Building Observation Deck, 86th Floor, August 1935. Image: private collection (Pisark's)
Visitor Postcard, Empire State Building Observation Deck, 86th Floor, [1930s]. Image: Private collection (Pisark's)

Visitation to the observation deck increased throughout the 1930s and into the next decade, despite a few setbacks in the 1940s. On July 28, 1945 a B-25 Bomber crashed into the north side of the building during a routine personnel transport mission killing 14 people and injuring elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver. The building was re-opened the following Monday.

Just two years later, a photography student named Robert Wiles happened upon the aftermath of Evelyn McHale's suicide and took a photograph. The photo, published by LIFE magazine on May 1, 1947 is still regarded as one of the most poignant portraits of suicide.

Following this and other incidents, building management announced the forthcoming construction of an additional steel barrier along the building's parapet. A New York Times article also stated that during the Empire State Building's first 16 years of operation, there were 9,000 visitors, and only 15 suicides (with just one instance of injury to a pedestrian below) (NYT, 1947-05-11).

The steel barrier and parapet, 1948. Image: Private collection (Pisark's)

Though taller and larger buildings continue to rise throughout the city, the Empire State Building remains one of the city's greatest treasures, and receives nearly 3.6 million visitors a year.

Other Sources and Sites of Interest:
-Empire State Building Historical Timeline
-Empire State Building fact sheet
-Columbia University Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library, Empire State Building Archive

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Wylie House on 40th Street

This post also appears on the Bryant Park blog

In the late 1800s, Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan was lined with mansions designed and built for the wealthy. The turn of the century brought retail and office buildings to the area -- and soon, the New York Public Library -- redefining it as a predominantly commercial region of the city. Few of these residences survived the shift, though one still stands at 28 West 40th Street, in between the American Scientific and the Engineer's Club buildings.

The Wylie House at 28 West 40th Street, with the American Scientific Building on the left, and the Engineers' Club on the right, 1926. Image MCNY
The mansion was commissioned by Dr. Walker Gill Wylie (Bio: p. 8-12), designed by R.H. Robertson, and built in 1891.

Dr. Wylie was born in South Carolina in 1649, joined the Confederate Army at age 16, and graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1868 with an Engineering degree. In 1871, he received his medical degree from Bellevue Medical College in New York City, and spent the following year in Europe observing hospital construction and nursing instruction. While in Europe, he consulted and collaborated with British Reformist Florence Nightingale. After returning to the States in 1873, he helped form the first nursing school, the Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing, which is now called the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing.

Bellevue Nurses, 1880s. Image via
For a number of years Wylie assisted James Marion Sims in abdominal surgery. A monument of Sims was erected in Bryant Park after his death in 1883. It stayed there until 1928, when it was removed and placed in storage in preparation for the 1933-1934 Moses renovation. In 1933 the monument was taken from storage and installed on a pedestal in Central Park at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue.
J. Marion Sims monument in Bryant Park, October 1894. The Croton Reservoir's west wall can be seen in the background.

In 1882, Dr. Wylie was appointed Visiting Gynecologist at Bellevue, a position he held for 25 years. That same year, he was also appointed Professor of Gynecology at the Polyclinic School of Medicine, lecturing there on gynecology and abdominal surgery for 20 years.
Bellevue surgeons, with -- I think -- Dr. Wylie front and center with the mustache [early1900s?]. Image via
Dr. Wylie lived with his family in the mansion until he died in 1923.
Bellevue Nursing graduating class, 1923. (Note the backwards print). Image via
The mansion's front facade has been (terribly) altered, and it's long been converted from a single family home into apartment housing, but it's a small indication of a pre-commercial 40th Street.

The Wylie House today. Photo: AK

Other Sources:
-"Relations of Hospitals to Pauperism," W. Gill Wylie. Popular Science Monthly. Volume 9, October 1876.
-Bellevue: a short history of Bellevue  Hospital and of the training schools. Alumnae Association of Bellevue, 1915. (link)
-Walker G. Wylie books, available on google books
-Bellevue School of Nursing Archives, housed at NYU.
-Daytonian in Manhattan blog post

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Artists of 80 West 40th Street

This post will also appear on the Bryant Park blog.

The Bryant Park Studios building was one of the first buildings in the city constructed specifically to house artists' studios. Commissioned by painter Abraham Archibald Anderson and designed by architect Charles A. Rich, it was built in 1900-1901 and featured 24 double-height, north facing windows. The site chosen for the building was the SE corner of 40th Street and Sixth Avenue. With Bryant Park across the street to the north, the building's windows were unlikely to be blocked out by future additions to the city's skyline, providing the studios with much-coveted natural light. 

Anderson kept the lavishly decorated penthouse and an apartment in the building for his studio and living space. His personal touches included a suit of armor, imported Spanish tapestries, a bathroom tiled in whole abalone shells, and an ornately carved Venetian doorway.

Anderson's penthouse studio with many of its embellishments
The building became one of the centers of the city's art world and attracted a long list of famous tenants. In the early years there was painter, turned photographer Edward Steichen:

Edward Steichen, self portrait, c. 1917 or before. Image via
 From the 1930s until the late 1950s, illustrator and painter Thomas Webb occupied several different studios in the building, including Anderson's Penthouse.
Painter Thomas Webb in his penthouse studio with the Venetian doorway in the background. Image: McCormick family
Webb was an exceptionally talented painter and illustrator, well known for his Saturday Evening Post work.
One of Webb's Saturday Evening Post covers. Image via

Last summer I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Webb's daughter, who also lived in the building for a time during the 1930s. She has great stories about New York City, the park during that time period -- it was empty and not very safe -- and some of the artist who worked in the building at the same time. 

Fernand Léger was a "bear of a man" with a deep gravely voice and a preference for only speaking French.

Fernand Léger's Three Musicians, 1930. Image via
Russian artist Leon Gordon once started a small fire by leaving paint brushes soaking in turpentine.

Elegant Man in Mirror, Leon Gordon. Image via
And though she never met him, her father was friendly with the photographer Man Ray, who shot this photo of another early tenant, sculptor Jo Davidson.

Jo Davidson (in his Paris studio) working on the cast of the Gertrude Stein statue, as his subject looks on, c. 1922. Photo by Man Ray, image source: Getty Museum
The building continues to house creative tenants, each with an eye for beauty and an appreciation of  a park view unblocked northern light.

Other sources:
-Gray, Christopher. NYT, October 6, 1991
-Landmarks Preservation Commission Report, Bryant park Studios Building, December 13, 1988

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Koster and Bial's Music Hall on 34th Street

Throughout the late 1800s Manhattan's Theater district crept northward along the city's Great White Way towards Times Square. Herald Square was home to several music and dance halls including Koster and Bial's. The theater's former location was a bit south at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street. Two days after closing the 23rd Street location, John Koster and Albert Bial opened a new music hall with the same name on 34th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway.  On August 28, 1893 the hall opened its doors to the public, eight years before Macy's would buy the property, demolish the building, and build their famous flagship store.

Exterior of Koster and Bial's on the north side of  West 34th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway, 1896. Image: MCNY

Interior of the 34th Street Koster and Bial's Music Hall, 1896. Image: MCNY

Strobridge Lithographing, 1896. Image: LOC

A popular vaudeville venue with varied stage performances, Koster and Bial's hosted burlesque and acrobatic acts, as well as a whole host of musical performances.
Fannie Leslie [1896]. Image: NYPL
Trick horse of Emile outside the music hall's 34th Street entrance, 1896. Image: MCNY
Among the many dancers who made regular appearances at the venue, was "La Carmencita," also known as "The Pearl of Seville." Carmen Dauset was born in Seville, Spain in 1868, and began performing at the age of 12 in 1880. She made her American debut at the 23rd Street Koster and Bial's in February 1890, but performed several times at the 34th Street location.
The dancer as portrayed by painter William Merritt Chase, 1888. Image via

One of a few portraits painted of the dancer by painter John Singer Sargent, 1890. Image via
The theater was also the chosen location for the first exhibition of Thomas Edison's Vitascope projector on April 23, 1896. Originally invented by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armant, and called a Phantoscope in 1895, the two inventors both claimed the invention as theirs after dissolving their partnership. It was soon sold to Thomas Edison, in what sounds like a similar situation to the Emile Berliner gramophone incident in the late 1870s. The Edison Manufacturing Company renamed the machine the Thomas Edison Vitascope, and continued manufacturing it.

The first theatrical exhibition of a a film projection machine, the Vitascope. April 23, 1896 Image: LOC

Edison's company went on to produce 100s of "actuality" films -- watch them -- documenting real life scenes with little or no narrative. Here is a film of Carmencita made in 1894, most likely with one of Edison's previous camera inventions: the kinetograph or kinetoscope:

Almost since the day it opened, the theater was plagued with financial and management issues. On July 17, 1901 Macy's announced the purchase and future demolition of the property to make way for the flagship store at 34th Street and Broadway. Three days later, Koster and Bial's held their last performance on the rook garden, ending with a chorus of performers and loyal customers singing "Auld Lang Syne."

You can still find a plaque commemorating the Hall's existence just outside the 34th Street entrance to Macy's.

Other Sources:
-Snyder, Robert. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Paterson, New Jersey, the SUM, and the Silk Strike of 1913

In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury convened a group of investors and  started the Society for Useful Manufacturers (SUM). He chose Paterson, N.J. for its proximity to the Passaic Falls and opportunity for future growth. It would be one of the first planned industrial communities in the United States; its design and function centered around the encouragement of stateside commerce and manufacturing. Using the power generated by the falls, developers built an intricate raceway system along the river, from where most mills generated power. The first mill was built and operational by 1796 on Mill Street and by the 1830s the area was known as the cotton capital of the United States.
Passaic Falls, N.J. [1890-1900]. Image: LOC
Locomotive manufacturing came to Paterson first in 1835 with the opening of Rogers Locomotive Works, followed by Danford & Cook and Grant Locomotive Company. All three produced over 10,000 steam engines.  Samuel Colt opened the Colt Gun Mill 1836,  all while the textile and cotton industries continued to flourish. Sanborn maps of the area from 1887 and 1899 show rapid growth during the late 1880s and into the 1900s.

Image: LOC

Paterson, N.J. in 1901. Image: Shorpy

By the early 1900s, with over 100 silk firms located in Paterson, the area was dubbed Silk City, and in 1910 SUM built the first hydro-electric plant. Before, each plant was powered by individual water wheels.

Silk Factory, stripping and dyeing, Paterson, N.J., early 1900s. Stereoscopic: Paige Family

Workers weaving plain silk cloth at a Paterson silk mill, early 1900s. Stereoscopic: Paige Family

The increased industrialization and poor working conditions of the early 1900s led to the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913 (not the town's first strike). Among the demands were the establishment of an eight-hour work day and restrictions in child labor practices. Organized by Paterson workers with the help of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the strikers succeeded in bringing international attention to abusive labor practices endured by workers all over the world, as well as cohesion to the growing movement to stop them. A pageant was held to raise awareness and support at Madison Square Garden on June 7, 1913.

Children from Paterson, N.J. attend a May Day parade in New York City as part of the Silk Strike protest efforts, May 1, 1913. Image: LOC

More than 25,000 skilled and unskilled workers effectively shut down the town's 300 mills and dye houses, however, they were defeated in July of that year. There remained animosity on both sides, with manufacturers making small concessions to striker demands to avoid further unrest. Finally, in 1919, the eight-hour workday was granted.

This year is the centennial of the Paterson Silk Strike. If you find yourself near Haledon New Jersey, check out the  American Labor Museum's exhibit commemorating the Silk Strike's centennial. It's up for another month.

Other sources:
1. NARA's Lewis Hine WPA Research Project photo gallery on flickr
2. Library of Congress research guides by New Deal Program
3. The Great Falls Raceway and Power System, Paterson NJ, National Historic Mechanical and Civil Engineering Landmark, Dedication Program, May 20, 1977
4. National Parks website