Thursday, October 8, 2015

Tammany on 33rd Street

A short distance from Corbett's, on 33rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, in an inconspicuous townhouse, was one of the city's most notorious gambling halls, the House with the Bronze Door. With lavish interiors designed by Stanford White of McKim, Mead and White, and an entrance fortified by a reclaimed 15th century bronze door, the House kept the wealthy in, and unsympathetic lawmakers out. (There were plenty of sympathetic lawmakers at the poker tables too.)
Men playing cards c. 1900. Image: LOC

Players won big and lost bigger in the House's gaming rooms, which included roulette, poker, baccarat. In case of raids, guests could escape through a secret route via an adjoining building. Owner Frank Farrell used the profits from the House with the Bronze Door to fund over 200 other illegal gambling dens throughout the city. He also used the profits to bribe members of law enforcement, most of who belonged to the Tammany Society, a corrupt political machine that controlled city and state politics for decades.

Harper's Weekly cartoon by William A. Rogers showing NYC Chief of Police "Big Bill" Devery collecting "taxes". Image and further explanation: Harp Week

Members of the Tammany Society were widely known to accept and require bribes and selectively enforce laws. Public approval of the organization fluctuated, though its powerlessness in the face of Tammany was recognized by several media outlets. With low rates of literacy, satirical cartoons reached a much wider audience than written diatribes could. It was a winning hand, and they accomplished in part, what Tammany feared the most, exposure to, and criticism from, the public. One of the most notable cartoonists was Thomas Nast of  Harper's Weekly. Throughout his years at the paper, he produced a huge number of sardonic cartoons for the heavily circulated weekly, often showing Tammany as an irate tiger destroying everything in its path.

Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast, November 11, 1897 showing Tammany tiger mauling democracy (depicted as Columbia with a crushed ballot box by her side) in a Roman Colosseum as Boss Tweed cheers from the stands. Image: OSU

Reformists, such Reverend Charles C. Parkhurst and Jerry McAuley played huge roles in publicizing Tammany's wrongs through well-attended sermons. In 1891 Reverend Parkhurst inaugurated a campaign against Tammany Hall. He gave sermons throughout the city denouncing public officials, and made it his personal mission to shut down all gambling halls. The effort eventually succeeded with the closure of several gaming rooms throughout the city, including the House with the Bronze Door in 1908. The defeat was celebrated in person and in print, though the Tammany Society would continue to operate in some form or other for several more decades.

Reverend Charles C. Parkhurst enjoys a brief victory over Tammany in this cartoon by J.S. Pughe, printed in an 1894 edition of Puck. Image: LOC

Further Reading:
1. Dash, Mike. Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century
2. Halloran, Fiona Deans. Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons
3. Gilfoyle, Timothy. A Pickpocket's Tale
4. Santé, Luc. Low Life

Friday, August 14, 2015

"Gentleman Jim" Corbett's on 33rd Street

This post also appears on Fashion Herald.

James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett was the heavyweight boxing champion in 1892. He won the title in the 21st round of a fight with the (so far) undefeated John L. Sullivan. Boxing was still illegal in most U.S. states in the late 1800s; New York State didn't legalize it until 1896, and it wasn't made an Olympic sport until 1904.
James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, 1910. Image: LOC
Corbett legitimized the sport for many by bringing grace and style to the ring. This, along with sharp dressing and a rumored college education earned him the nickname "Gentleman Jim." He followed his career in boxing with a successful one in stage acting. Sometime in the late 1800s he opened a cafe on Broadway, just north of 33rd Street, and named it Corbett's.

Corbett's on Broadway and 33rd Street looking north, 1900. Image: MCNY
Corbett's fit in well in the neighborhood, then an area full of restaurants, bars, and smaller theaters. Actors and publishers were known to drop by, and it was conveniently located near the elevated Sixth Avenue train.

34th Street, where Sixth Avenue and Broadway meet, with the Corbett's sign on the left, 1901. Image: NYPL
The turn of the century brought big retail to the area, and many of the buildings in the neighborhood were razed to make way for large department stores. Andrew Saks bought the properties on the corner of 34th Street where Sixth Avenue and Broadway meet, including the Corbett's building. Saks built his 34th Street flagship store on that corner in 1901. Gimbels followed one block south with a store in 1910, and in the late 1930s, the elevated train went underground.

Saks 34th Street, 1955. Image: MCNY
Though the 34th district is populated with plenty of bars and restaurants, retail still dominates the streetscape. 
34th at Broadway, 2015. Image: 34SP, Anne Kumer

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Queen of Staccato

Luisa Tetrazzini, also known as the Queen of Staccato, was a Coloratura soprano, famous for her vocal range and flexibility. She achieved the kind of International fame that only seems available to pop stars today, and performed regularly in Europe and the United States from the 1890s into the 1920s. The Library of Congress has several recordings of her here.

Luisa Tetrazzini, c. February 16, 1911. Image: LOC

In 1908 Tetrazzini signed a five-year contract with Oscar Hammerstein to sing at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Just a few years into this contract, they had a dispute over money and venues. He wanted her to sing in New York; she loved, missed, and was eager to return to San Francisco. Her response was truly Bay Area: she took to the streets, and on Christmas Eve, 1910, gave a free concert at the corner of Market and Kearney, near Lotta's Fountain. The city and its citizens, still recovering from the damage caused by the 1906 earthquake, were grateful, and showed their support in numbers.

Tetrazzini's SF street show, Christmas Eve, 1910. Image via
Back in New York, Tetrazzini performed at the  Hippodrome on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets numerous times throughout her career and was one of the most popular performers in the city.
Ticket line for a Tetrazzini concert at the Hippodrome, 1919. Image: LOC
She also lived in the Hotel McAlpin (now Herald Towers).

Broadway, looking south with the Hotel McAlpin on the right, 1921. Image: MCNY

On December 3, 1920 Tetrazzini gave a recital via "radio telephone" from her room at the McAlpin. Arranged by Army Signal Corps, it was the first attempt to provide long distance entertainment to troops deployed overseas and aboard naval ships. Her voice was heard by hundreds on ships in port and at sea within 400 miles of New York City. As a thank you, Private Fred Bennett of Fort Wood, Staten Island, stationed aboard one of the ships, sang "A Tumble Down Shack in Athlone" back over the airwaves to Tetrazzini. 

On Christmas Day of that same year, she gave another meaningful performance at the McAlpin, this time as Mrs. Santa Claus to the hotel's visiting and permanent resident children.

In addition to being a famed musician, she was the namesake for the dish Chicken Tetrazzini. There are varying accounts as to the origin of the recipe, but all can agree that it was named after and inspired by Tetrazzini. James Beard attributes the recipe to chef Ernest Aborgast at The Plaza Hotel in San Francisco; I'm tempted to believe him just because of my undying love for this book.

Louis Paquet, chef de cuisine of the Hotel McAlpin won four prizes in the 1920 Hotel Men's Exposition at the Grand Central Palace. Around this time, Tetrazzini also gave him her recipe for  Spaghetti Tetrazzini, a dish that remained on the McAlpin menu for several years.

Enrique Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini, two men, Nipper the dog, 1914. Image: LOC

Here is Luisa singing along with a recording of Caruso. It's the only surviving film footage of her, and twas taken upon her retirement in 1932. At 62, and following a prolific performing career, her voice is still as strong as ever, and her laugh at the end is delightful.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Liberty Corner

The Broadway Tabernacle Church was formed as a pulpit for the reformist preacher Charles Grandison Finney in the mid-1830s. Finney was an advocate of social reform, primarily equal education for all people regardless of race or gender, as well as a proponent of the growing abolition movement.  The church auditorium was one of the city's largest public halls, and hosted rallies, scientific demonstrations, and lectures, as well as sermons.

In 1842 noted geologist Sir Charles Lyell gave a series of lectures on Uniformitarianism, the then groundbreaking theory that the earth is developed and shaped by slow moving forces still in effect. Two years later, the church hosted the first public demonstration of nitrous oxide used as an anesthetic.

Broadway Tabernacle auditorium at Worth Street and Broadway, 1850. Image: NYPL

For its many community functions, the Tabernacle was best known (and hated by some) for supporting the abolition and women's rights movements. Angry mobs attempted to burn down the church during construction, and at times the lives of its preachers and congregants were put at risk. Women's suffragette and activist Sojourner Truth famously spoke at the Women's Rights Convention in 1853 held at the Tabernacle. Boos, hisses, and protests were so raucous that the convention earned the nickname The Mob Convention of 1853. 

Sojourner Truth, 1864. Image: LOC
Frederick Douglass along with William Lloyd Garrsion spoke at the church several times before it moved again, this time to 34th Street where Broadway and Sixth Avenue meet. By then, the church was known as Liberty Corner for its commitment as " . . . a center for every good cause, civic or religious, that needed rallying," The Literary Digest, 1905-01-07.Pastor Joseph Parrish Thompson gave frequent anti-slavery sermons, invited black preachers to the pulpit, and with other members of the church, founded The Independent, a weekly anti-slavery newspaper.

NE Corner of Sixth Avenue and 34th Street showing the Broadway Tabernacle Church [1900], Image: NYPL
Pastor Thompson resigned in 1871, and soon after, William MacKergo Taylor took over pastoral duties. Taylor put an emphasis on missionary work, and advanced the rights of female congregants by giving laywomen the right to vote within the church. He also established Bethany Church on 33rd Street and Tenth Avenue, a mission church that was operable into the 1920s.

Broadway Tabernacle Church interior with a Ferris & Stuart organ, 34th Street, 1859. Image: via

In 1901, the church and congregation  moved to 57th Street and Broadway, and then later, again, this time to its present location at 93rd Street and Broadway. It is now called the Broadway United Church of Christ. In its place, at the NE corner of 34th Street and Broadway, the Marbridge building, an office building with retail space was built. 

The Marbridge Building, 1941. Image: MCNY

Other Sources:
1. Sir Charles Lyell, Eight Lectures on Geology
2. Library of Congress, Sojourner Truth online resources
3. Ward, Susan Hayes. The History of Broadway Tabernacle Church, 1901
4. Judd, Lewis Strong. The Broadway Tabernacle Church, 1901-1915

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 Fitzgerald'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 1934 and 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