BBC America's Copper, depicting the grit and crime of 1860s New York, was recently cancelled (although petitions are currently circulating, demanding a Season Three).
But the void of history-related television will soon be filled again with Turn, AMC's Revolutionary War-era drama on George Washington's spy network, called The Culper Ring. What do you think?
Although this clearly depicts a variety of locations pivotal to the American Revolution, much of Washington's spy ring was located near British headquarters -- namely New York and the surrounding area. So the show should eventually turn its attention to the city in the Revolutionary era.
We're sure to see not only the bustling, over-crowded streets around St. Paul's Church and Bowling Green -- possibly even the ruins from the 1776 fire which incinerated almost a fourth of the city -- but imagined locations in Long Island and Westchester.
You're not seeing things -- that's Jamie Bell (aka Billy Elliott) as the leader of the spy ring Abraham Woodhull (aka Samuel Culper).
They'll certainly take a lot of liberties given the secrecy of the Culper Ring. I can't wait to see how they depict the most intriguing alleged member of the gang -- Agent 355. The show is set to air in early 2014.
And although though it's not set in New York, if you like history and mobsters, check out Mob City tonight on TNT, set in Los Angeles in the 1940s and based on John Buntin's excellent book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City.
And speaking of George Washington, today marks the 230th anniversary of the General's farewell speech to the officers of the Continental Army, given at Fraunces Tavern just days after the British were permanently expelled from New York in 1783.
His toast to his men: "With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable."
There was not a dry eye in the house.
For more information, give our podcast on Fraunces Tavern a listen. The building has a fascinating, even dizzying history.
Below: Fraunces Tavern's lonely dining hall, deputed by artist Thomas Wakeman in 1850.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
The craziest Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree ever, in 1949, caused an equally crazy Fifth Avenue traffic jam
For the 1949 season, the caretakers of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree decided to go fantastically over the top.
Just a few years earlier, New Yorkers were served up a plainly adorned tree with no electric lights, a reminder of the war in Europe and a nod to energy preservation. But the war was over now; it was time to get delightfully gaudy.
Perhaps knowing the mild temperatures that awaited that season -- it would only snow two inches between November 1949 and January 1950 -- the Rockefeller Center holiday designers decided to spray paint the gigantic 75-foot tree in hundreds of gallons of whimsical silver paint. It was then engulfed in 7,500 electric lights in pastel colors -- pink, blue, yellow, green and orange, described as "plucked from a sky in fairyland."
This Easter-like hue, bouncing off the silver-painted branches, reflected out from behind dozens of glass ornaments, leading up to the brilliant white star on top, which, according to the New York Times, "seemed to send glints of fire almost to the top of the seventy-seventh floor RCA Building in back of the tree."
576 of them, illuminated for hypnotic effect.
At right: An ad for the Rockefeller Center ice skating pond, from a December 1949 issue of the New Yorker
Is it any surprise then that this insane display would later create, on December 19, 1949, "one of the worst traffic jams Fifth Avenue traffic jams in recent years"?
Due to shocked motorists trying to catch a glimpse at this electric wonderland, Fifth Avenue became a rush hour nightmare for several hours. "Cars were pinned bumper to bumper from 72nd south to 41st Street along Fifth Avenue, making cross-traffic an impossibility and imprisoning automobiles in side streets."
Even through police were called out to enforce emergency traffic rules, Midtown was essentially in a state of vehicular trauma until 10 pm that evening.
Below: During the day, the silver-painted branches, adorned with heavy glass ornaments, cast a particular glow upon the ice skating pond below. Picture courtesy Flickr/lighthousenewsus
Picture courtesy Life Magazine/Andreas Feninger
Monday, December 2, 2013
"When You Done Your Christmas Furs -- It will be an added pleasure to know they came from Gimbels -- the house with the time-honored experience in Furs -- for surely it requires more than simply workmanship to produce a good fur garment. GIMBELS seventy-one years' experience has resulted in the accurate knowledge as to how to properly select the skins."
Some of the furs sold at Gimbels for the holiday season in 1913 -- wolf, muskrat, skunk raccoon, lynx, lamb, stoats (otherwise known as ermine), several kinds of fox, beaver and 'tiger-dyed coney' or rabbit skins dyed to resemble exotic animals. You could get coney skins in zebra and leopard prints.
Nellie Fassett Crosby (Mrs. John Sherwin Crosby), president of the Women's Democratic Club of New York City and founder of the Woman's National Democratic League, and Mrs. Steven Beckwith Ayres, also active in the WNDL.
Eugenie Mary "May" Ladenburg Davie, noted Republican activist in New York and a director of the Pioneer Fund. She was apparently a bit of a political spitfire, even while draped in the latest fashion.
It's even suitable beach wear! A group of friends at Coney Island, January 1915
From the studio of New York portraitist Theodore C Marceau, 1906
Gimbels not only sold furs; they stored them for you in the summertime. Can't have a frock made entirely of animal skin just sitting in your closet!
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Months after the Draft Riots, New York celebrates the first national Thanksgiving, in the shadow of war and lunar eclipse
Above: A Thomas Nast illustration from Harper's Weekly, November 1863, clearly putting the event in the context of war and hardship.
In practice, Thanksgiving celebrates the supposed feast between the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors in Massachusetts. But meals of 'thanksgiving' have been part of the Western world customs for hundreds of years, and today the meal is more an excuse to gather the family together and count the seconds until holiday shopping.
Because that 'original' meal was only vaguely documented, let me give you a more definite event -- 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national celebration of Thanksgiving for the last week in November:
"I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."
Perhaps you did a double-take at that statement. There's no mention of Pilgrims or Indians in Lincoln's proclamation, which was made on October 3, 1863. There is, of course, several soothing religious references. (You can read the entire statement here.) After all, the United States had been fighting a Civil War for over two and a half years. Any words of peace and calm, paired with boasts of American bounty and expansion, would have put the bloody conflict in a divine context. "[H]armony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict," Lincoln wrote.
At right: Thanksgiving dinner at 'the Home for the Friendless', 1860s. I cannot imagine a more grimly named institution! courtesy NYPL
New Yorkers had celebrated a form of Thanksgiving for many years prior to the 1863 proclamation. But the feast had always been considered a regional, New England celebration, one a little foreign for the city.
From The New York Sun, November 26, 1863: "The sights and scenes in our city yesterday afforded evident indications of a unanimous determination ... to break up once and all the monopoly of Thanksgiving, so long enjoyed by the New Englanders. For years past, it had been a standing boast of the genuine 'Down Easters' that the air of New York was unsuited to the festival of the Pilgrim fathers."
Below: Washington Market, always a hectic place, was especially so on Thanksgiving. This scene from Harper's Weekly depicts frantic shoppers in 1872. Courtesy Library of Congress
Don't tell New Yorkers what they can't have! The Sun promised a "racy and peculiar" New York Thanksgiving that year. The markets were clogged with shoppers, as New Yorkers came out in force to purchase items for their own Thanksgiving meals. Every other man on the street seemed to have a naked bird flung over their shoulders. "Evidentally, every family man and woman, who could raise the number of greenbacks, invested them in Thanksgiving fixings."
This might have been a little journalistic posturing. Just five months earlier, New York had been ablaze in the Draft Riots, several days of violence towards its own citizens, fueled by an unfair conscription policy and the fears and racial hatreds of its citizens. Most of the burned buildings had been cleared, but the bloodshed was on many minds. Many benefits throughout the city raised money for injured Union soldiers and the families of those who had died in battle.
The Sun quietly refers to the Draft Riots' most sickening event, the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum. "At the Five Points House of Industry the little ones are to have a bountiful feast. The colored children burnt out by the mob will be taken care of at Carmansville."
Below: Boy with a turkey, circa 1910-1915 (LOC)
Generally speaking, celebrations went forward as they would in subsequent years -- the food, the church services, the carousing, the merriment, decades before anybody would think of blowing up gigantic balloons and dragging them down Broadway.
However, one thing had been very different that year. On the evening before Thanksgiving, New Yorkers looked up into sky and witnessed a partial lunar eclipse.
While the event might have filled some with dread, it cast a mysterious pall further south, on the battle field of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It occurred hours after the Confederacy's defeat by the Union army and helped shield the Southern forces as they slipped away by cover of fog.
Alongside news of New York's embrace of Thanksgiving, the newspapers that day reported of a victory and a death toll: "General [Joseph] Hooker, in command of General Geary's division, Twelfth corps, General Osterhau's divison, Fifteenth corps, and two brigades, carried the north slope of Lookout Mountain, with small loss on our side, and a loss to the enemy of five hundred or six hundred prisoners: killed and wounded not reported."
Monday, November 25, 2013
"Photograph shows a boy and a girl dancing while an Edison Home Phonograph plays in a house in Broad Channel, Queens, New York City." -- taken between 1910-1915
Here's something many people thought they'd never see again in New York City -- the opening of a new record store. Rough Trade, known for their famous London record shop, will open an awesomely spacious new store in Williamsburg this week, with vinyl-record listening stations, a coffee shop, live performances and a heap of nostalgia on its shoulders.
Remember Tower Records on Broadway? Virgin Records in Times Square? The old subway Record Mart? The long-vanished Commodore Record Shop? The past is littered with the ghosts of music stores long gone.
They were soon in competition with phonographs in a flat, wax disc form, the musical delivery device which eventually won out and became the standard for decades.
In the beginning, recorded music was played in exhibition halls, not available for home use. By the 1890s, the first musical devices were available for purchase, and phonographs were sold in establishments that offered instruments, music boxes or early electronics -- Broadway piano stores (like the one above, in 1910) or the places down on the soon-to-be-named Radio Row which offered New Yorkers the latest technology.
Naturally, the first records were made to play on Edison machines, pricey novelties in the late 1890s. Here, in 1898, you could put a down-payment on the purchase of a phonograph machine and a bicycle -- a real hipster double-play today!
Another advertisement from 1898 presents Edison records at just "$5.00 a dozen", found at the St. James Building at Broadway and 26th Street. Of course, a great many of these records were spoken word, not music; after all, they were nicknamed 'talking machines' at this time.
I was able to find a few other early photographer retailers in old newspaper advertisements. For instance, Douglas & Co., at 10 West 22nd Street, appears to be one of New York's earliest retailers specializing in recorded sound. From Dec 16, 1900:
By 1903, Douglas & Co. had moved downtown, closer to the electronic retailers that would later specialize in radio and televisions:
Another early phonograph retailer I was able to locate was A.B Barkelew & Kent. "Call and hear them. They talk themselves." They would eventually move to Vesey Street and, in 1902, claim "the largest stock in New York."
As early in 1899, Barkelew & Kent could claim to be one of New York's first used record stores. From a trade ad: "We exchange records you tire of and do not like."
Interestingly, early record stores were listed alongside advertisements for sporting goods. This ad is from May 1902:
And since we're celebrating the opening of a new record store in Brooklyn, I should add that one of Brooklyn's first major record stores was at A.D. Matthews Department Store on Fulton Street.
From an April 1900 advertisement:
From an April 1900 advertisement:
Sunday, November 24, 2013
Friday, November 22, 2013
Okay, maybe it's just me that does this, but occasionally I love perusing the document archives of the New York Department of Records, a treasure trove of municipal maps and photography from the past.
Buried amid the grisly crime photographs and disaster images are an interesting array of mugshots. With little information attached, we can only try to figure out the lives of these people through their clothing and expressions.
Below I present to you a few of the junior mugshots from the Department of Records, those teenagers and young adults who commits a host of unknown crimes between 1910 and 1920. Try and imagine what their lives might have been like, what might have driven them to commit the crimes in which they were captured, or whether were even guilty at all. Whatever happened to these young men? If I can find more information on them, I'll update this post.
I'm linking directly from the Department of Records, so you can click into each entry and drag the images around. Please give it a few seconds to load. Their website is a bit tricky.
Name: L. Rose
Name: Louis Cohen
Name: Benny Stern
Taken: August 13, 1913
Taken: March 17, 1911
Name: W. Dorsch
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Taxis, not as taxing! The caption for the photo above: "New York City Mayor's Bureau of Licenses condemning a taxicab after new ordinance regulating taxicab meters went into effect on August 1, 1913." The law was withheld in state court 100 years ago today, kicking in a new set of lowered cab fares for New Yorkers. The price list is below.
-- The Bowery Boys were featured in last weekend's issue of the Wall Street Journal in an article about the economics of podcasting. The article by Jo Piazza -- which also features Catie Lazarus of the Employee of the Month podcast -- is depressingly titled 'So Many Podcasts, So Little Profit.' [Wall Street Journal]
-- What's the latest on the remains of the Bull's Head Tavern that were found on the Bowery during the excavation for a new boutique hotel? Well, demolition hasn't stopped. [The Lo-Down]
-- Also wiped from the New York City landscape -- 5Pointz, the graffiti palace in Long Island City and the Louvre of graffiti art. But a new condominium is on the way! I'm not a clairvoyant, but that new condo better have paint-resistant surfaces [New York Times]
-- Perhaps you've biked or driven past this building many times, the Flatbush Avenue campus of Long Island University with the curious marquee. It was once the spectacular Paramount Theatre, dating from 1928. Nick takes you inside, looking for the remains of this former movie palace. [Scouting NY]
-- Amazing New York nurses from 1942! Another lovely find from the Shorpy digital photo blog. [Shorpy]
-- The curious journey of a neon liquor sign on the Upper West Side. "In as much as New York's old neon signs are metaphors for survival against the odds, Riverside and its old sign say it loud and clear." [New York Neon]
-- And you'll be getting a preview of our new look this Monday! It's far more interesting and presentable than, say, our original look.
-- One hundred years ago today, the battle to lower cab rates, spearheaded by the New York Evening World, was won when an appellate court withheld regulations passed by New York's board of aldermen. It also eliminated 'private hackstands', which created virtual monopolies for wealthier private cab companies . Here is the new list of cab fares in 1913:
Picture above and newspaper excerpts courtesy the Library of Congress
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
A ton of people on-stage at the Harlem Opera House in 1907. During this period, it was owned by vaudeville impresario Keith Proctor and called Proctor's Harlem Opera House. Pictures courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
The Hotel Theresa, subject of this week's podcast, had a rather unusual neighbor in its early years.
Harlem is known for a rich musical heritage in a variety of genres, but did you know it also had very old ties to world of opera, from as far back as the 19th century?
Oscar Hammerstein was a wealthy New York cigar maker who decided to dip his toe into real estate ventures, and in a most surprising neighborhood. Thanks to the construction of the elevated railroads in the 1880s, the once-distant Harlem was now linked to the heart of the city, and thousands began moving there, particularly European Jewish immigrants.
Hammerstein built dozens of rowhouses for prospective residents, but his real vision was the Harlem Opera House (at right), constructed in 1889 and located at 207 West 125th Street, on the other side of the street from the Hotel Winthrop (later the Hotel Theresa).
For a time, it really did just showcase operatic productions, of both the severe and light varieties. According to author Jonathan Gill, "Hammerstein had a broad vision of what uptown theatergoers wanted, and he produced both popular and genteel drama and opera in English translation, an experiment that proved attractive to audiences who were willing to pay up to $2.50 a ticket."
Famous stars were drawn here from the stages of Herald Square. For instance, Edwin Booth performed Shakespeare here in 1889, a few years before his death. Lillian Russell, a favorite of the New York press, performed the show 'An American Beauty' here in March 1897.
The Opera House helped create a miniature theater district here along 125th Street. Hammerstein himself built the Columbus Theatre the following year, bringing more popular fare -- namely, vaudeville. Soon the street would become one of New York's great centers of burlesque entertainment. Many years later, Hurtig & Seamon's New Burlesque Theater would open a couple doors down from the opera house, later changing its name to the Apollo Theatre.
Hammerstein, however, could not make the Harlem Opera House a financial success, and he was soon lured downtown to build his most renown theaters (and places that would later inspire his grandson Oscar Hammerstein II.) The Harlem Opera House was sold and transformed into a more traditional vaudeville house. By the 1930s, to compete with the thriving amateur nights over at the Apollo, the Harlem Opera House had its own amateur nights. Its most notable discovery is one of the greatest names in music -- Ella Fitzgerald.
Below: Another view of the Opera House, here as Proctor's Opera House, courtesy NYHS. The balconies to the left belong to the Winthrop Hotel -- compare this picture to the Winthrop photo here -- to be replaced in a few years by the Theresa.
The Opera House was torn down in 1959. Surprisingly, it appears there was the possibility of a new opera house in Harlem being built in the late 1960s, under the guidance of Gian Carlo Menotti, but that never panned out. However, the operatic tradition lives on today with the Harlem Opera Theater, founded in 2001.
Below: You can still find the Harlem Opera House in Harlem -- on the walls of the 125th subway station, in mosaic form!
Friday, November 15, 2013
The Hotel Theresa, as it looks today, White Castle and all.
PODCAST The Hotel Theresa is considered a genuine (if under-appreciated) Harlem gem, both for its unique architecture and its special place in history as the hub for African-American life in the 1940s and 50s.
The luxurious apartment hotel was built by a German lace manufacturer to cater to a wealthy white clientele. But almost as soon as the final brick was laid, Harlem itself changed, thanks to the arrival of thousands of new black residents from the South.
Harlem, renown the world over for the artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance and its burgeoning music scene, was soon home to New York's most thriving black community. But many of the businesses here refused to serve black patrons, or at least certainly made them unwelcome.
The Theresa changed its policy in 1940 and soon its lobby was filled with famous athletes, actresses and politicians, many choosing to live at the Hotel Theresa over other hotels in Manhattan. The hotel's relative small size made it an interesting concentration of America's most renown black celebrities.
In this podcast, I give you a tour of this glamorous scene, from the corner bar to the penthouse, from the breakfast table of Joe Louis to the crazy parties of Dinah Washington.
ALSO: Who is this mysterious Theresa? What current Congressman was a former desk clerk? And what was Joe Louis' favorite breakfast food?
To get this week's episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.
You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.
Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #158 The Hotel Theresa: The Waldorf of Harlem
The Hotel Winthrop which sat on the spot of the Theresa before it was torn down in the early 1910s, deemed a bit inadequete for the growing neighborhood. (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
From the February 4, 1917, issue of the New York Tribune, making note of its "large spacious dining room overlooking the Palisades."
The Hotel Theresa, circa 1915. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Boxer Joe Louis was one of America's most famous athletes in the 1940s and a frequent guest at the Teresa. Joe fought the German boxer Max Schmeling twice, both times at Yankee Stadium. Max bested Joe in the first match, but on the second go-around in 1938, Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round. He enjoyed his win that evening at the Theresa, as thousands of fans gathered in front of the hotel and throughout the city in celebration.
Malcolm X speaking to crowds in front of the Hotel Theresa -- back when there was a Chock Full O Nuts on street level! The former Malcolm Little would be very associated with the hotel, headquartering here after his split with the Nation of Islam. Photo by Larry Fink c/o WNYC
Jet Magazine and Ebony Magazine founder John J Johnson conceived the ideas for both magazine at the Hotel Theresa and frequently published articles about the Theresa.
A notice in a 1954 issue of Jet announcing the opening of the Hotel Theresa ballroom, called the Skyline.
In its final years, the Hotel Theresa was even featured in an Alfred Hitchcock film 'Topaz'. The film fictionalized and played around with an actual event that took place at the Theresa -- the arrival of Fidel Castro here in 1960.
You can see the Hotel Theresa briefly in the film's trailer (at 1:19):
And finally, I featured the music of Una Mae Carlisle in the show. She was frequently hired to play the Theresa's club room in the late1940s. Tragically, Ms. Carlisle died of an illness in 1956, or else she's certainly be better known today: