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

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 views were likely to stay unblocked 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 and unblocked northern light.

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