The Villard Houses, a Madison Avenue masterpiece by the firm McKim, Mead and White, was mostly the inspiration of their associate Joseph Wells, according to the author. [courtesy NYPL]
Triumvirate: McKim Mead & White
Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class In America's Gilded Age
by Mosette Broderick
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, Publisher
BOOK REVIEW I've been going back and forth for a couple weeks about whether to recommend Mosette Broderick's 'Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal, and Class in America's Gilded Age', the indulgent and labyrinthine story of the legendary New York architecture firm, in many ways a book that's as cluttered, over scaled and ornate as any Beaux-Arts building. And, for that reason, at root a fine way to tackle the material.
McKim, Mead and White is largely responsible for the most romantic of New York's great structures, the premier creators of landmarks, towers and townhouses in the late 19th century, distilling centuries of architectural technique and flourish for the purposes of turning America into an outsized version of Europe. But their tale has always been lopsidedly told, thanks in part to Stanford White's flamboyant personality and his scandalous murder atop Madison Square Garden, a building he himself designed.
Broderick, a New York University professor of art history, doesn't quite recalibrate their story to its logical center, but she comes close. 'Triumvirate' is an exhaustive tale of opulence and wealth in the Gilded Age, with a literal cast of hundreds, recounted with a modern reverence to high society.
Curiously, the three men whose names would become synonymous with great American architecture and decoration came neither from great wealth nor fine society. Charles McKim grew up in an ardent abolitionist household and married himself into money, only to become a widower early on and withdraw from social interaction. Stanford White achieved what his social-climbing father could not, fostering a circle of creative friends (and possibly lovers) and ascending into high fashion by strength of will.
Their proximity to society is crucial, one of Broderick's central points. They built upon family connections, friendships at social clubs and a glowing reputation garnered from commissions in summer locales like Newport, RI. The book immerses you into the social architecture that would lift the firm's reputation.
The third member of the 'triumvirate' William Rutherford Mead, more manager than architect, is a passive presence in this story. Instead Broderick focuses on some of the other men at the firm, most notably the talented Joseph Wells, depicted here almost as a romantic archetype, a creative inspiration for Stanford White and possibly more.
The firm's early projects (both great and small), their forgotten masterpieces and their greatest enduring successes are all catalogued here with a glowing sense of detail, lines of influence of drawn between them. For instance, an extraordinary flourish from a tony New York townhouse might have first appeared on small Newport summer home commission a few years earlier. Broderick applauds their penchant for imitation and their creativity to combine architectural components.
The book is at its most effective when talking about icons -- places like the Villiard Houses, the Washington Square arch, the Columbia University campus, and the especially Pennsylvania Station. ("The station's destruction helped to spark the creation of the Landmark Preservation Commission, but one wishes that a less significant building had to be sacrified to this end.")
I don't have a deep background in architecture but I was riveted to many of her descriptions of various office buildings and mansions, places I had never heard of and were long demolished. And the discussion is not just of exteriors; Broderick goes out of her way to establish White as an expert interior designer and furniture hunter whose treasures populate local museums to this day.
Props to the team at Knopf for gathering some remarkable photographs, many nestled within the text itself.
The pictures are greatly needed at times. The story is layered (and layered and then layered again) with the minutiae of New York social affairs, with so many proverbial bold-faced names that had they really been bold faced, the printer would have ran out of ink. She sets the story into context only too well, so much context that it often obscures the point. There are a great many tangents of interest, most notably that of department store mogul A.T. Stewart and the fate of his estate, but most often overstay their welcome.
Broderick's depiction of White's alleged homosexual proclivities is interesting. She addresses it almost immediately, then says "the sexual orientation of White and the circle he favored is of no important to the work he did and is best left in simple form here." But far from leaving it, the narrative peers at it and speculates at any given chance. White's relationships with Wells, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and others can only be inferred. And Broderick, she infers, on this and on some of the salicious events in McKim's first marriage. Okay, I'll admit, it makes for a juicier read.
Combined with the book's social-calendar aspect, 'Triumvirate' can feel like a gossipy novel woven into a serious dissertation on Gilded Age architecture, a combination that is so strange -- expressing itself in elegantly structured prose one moment, and dry, old-fashioned text the next -- that at the end of the day, I cautiously recommend this.
The book's flaws only prop up the material, and once you settle into the unusual rhythms, you may find yourself planning a McKim, Mead and White house hunting trip in the near future. Broderick gives you tools, as long as you peel away the doilies.
Times were good for the Seville, as reflected in its signature Tiffany-inspired skylight, but by the 1970s, it was luxuriant no more. The hotel hit hard times, went 'budget' and produced the following television advertisement. Picture any hotel that presently exists today trying to promote itself with this sort of schmaltz:
One guest who stayed here during this period was Sid Vicious, distraught over the death of Nancy Spungeon, who slashed his arm and overdosed on methadone in one of its rooms in October of 1978. He would survive, of course, suffering another brief stay at Riker's Island before dying of a heroin overdose at an apartment on 63 Bank Street in the West Village.
The hotel slid to some very sorry places before being purchased in the 1980s. Today its the Carlton Hotel, extensively renovated, featuring high-end bars and restaurants and a lobby waterfall. And Jacobs' notable architecture was finally honored in 2005 when it made the National Register of Historic Places. I haven't seen any television commercials for the Carlton recently, but I hope they're as catchy as those of its predecessor.
Above: The slow, bitterly aggravating work of clearing the streets of New York during the blizzard of 1888.
The second largest snow-filled month in New York City history! The snowiest January ever! The eighth biggest snowstorm ever! These are some of the records being thrown out this morning after last night's wild thunder-filled snow apocalypse.
Most of New York's big snow and cold weather records have actually happened in February and the infamous Great Blizzard of 1888 was even in March.
The biggest snowstorms of all time are all a part of recent history, including the largest on Feb. 11 and 12, 2006, with almost 27 inches of snow. Coming in a close second was the mess that fell upon New York the day after Christmas in 1947, delivering 26.4 inches of snow.
But I really think we need to factor in degree of difficulty when talking about horrible snowstorms. Would you rather endure the massive storm last night, or the 24 inches of snow that fell upon New York exactly 206 years ago today in 1805, over the course of three days? Can't exactly clear the roads very well with a horse-drawn carriage, can you? Can't salt a sidewalk that doesn't exist!
Not for lack of trying. The Harper's Weekly illustration below details a snow clearing effort from 1867, with men slowly making their way down an impassible road, shoveling the snow into carts pulled by beleaguered horses.
Early trains just pushed through the mush. During the storm of 1888, a train aiming for Grand Central Depot derailed while attempting to shove aside mounds of snow. In the picture below, from an 1877 "January snow blockade", a Long Island Railroad locomotive hopefully has better luck:
If you chose to go outside during a wretched 19th century storm, most likely you took a ferry -- if you could get to one and the waters weren't frozen -- or you braved it on a sleigh, not exactly the safest form of transportation.
The illustration below, from 1872, depicts the street scene in Harlem, several years before the elevated railroad spurred on massive growth for the former village. It still would have been very remote; during the summer, horse-fancying businessmen would take their steeds to the streets in races. (This was a particular pastime of Cornelius Vanderbilt.) The sleighs below are clearly wealthier people from lower Manhattan, enjoying the village's relatively untouched icy paths. (NYPL)
Clearing sidewalks hasn't gotten easier over the years, although I suppose building owners have a greater responsibility now to clear the ways in front of their properties. The gentleman below, from an 1896 Alice Austen photo, tackles the frozen mush with a unique tool -- is there gold in that there snow? -- as a streetcar makes its way past. (source)
With the introduction of the automobile, the city has been able to clear streets more efficiently. But it creates another problem: pushing snow to the side creates small iceberg-like mountains that make it challenge to park and impossible to handle if you're the unfortunate owner of a parked car in its wake. Below: A cab struggles to handle a messy street in 1948. (Photographer Cornell Capa, LIFE)
Most images above courtesy the New York Public Library digital collection, except for the last, from Life Google images..
NAME THAT NEIGHBORHOOD Some New York neighborhoods are simply named for their location on a map (East Village, Midtown). Others are given prefabricated designations (SoHo, DUMBO). But a few retain names that link them intimately with their pasts. Other entries in this series can be found here.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Typical farming may not lend itself to photographic opportunity, but add a view from a few stories up, and you get something rather surreal. The rooftop farm, one of several sprouting up on top of New York buildings, offers local restaurants and budding farmers an opportunity to use organically grown produce and even grow their own food.
But the Eagle Street farm actually brings Greenpoint back to its roots. Literally. And nods to the origin of its name.
I've always associated Greenpoint with industry, its shores dominated by dockyards and its rows of streets, running in alphabetical order from north to south, defined by factories and warehouses. Its rich Polish community traces its development to immigrants who moved here to work in those very places.
But the original settlers to the area had a very good reason to call it Greenpoint. This was once a vigorous and fertile farming community, with ideal soil conditions and access to a waterway that could get farmers to the thriving markets of New York.
There was even an actual point of green, so to speak, a slender neck of land covered in grass that jutted into the East River at this location. (One source says the point was actually planted with green wheat.) Those travelling along the river in the early days called it as they saw it -- Green Point. I'm not sure what happened to this long-gone natural feature, but eventually it lent its name to the entire neighborhood.
Also gone is a third body of water, filled in long ago, that helped define (and segregate) the region -- Bushwick Creek (sometimes known as Norman Kill), which ran south, and separated it from the town of Williamsburgh to the south. For some idea of where this creek might have sat, simply erase everything between the Bushwick inlet and McCarren Park and replace it with a marsh.
The region became part of the Dutch town of Boswijck (Bushwick) in 1638 and would not become distinguished by its current name for almost 200 years. During the time, the area was noted for large farms, many in the early days worked by slave labor. One of the first farmers was the Nordic implant Dirck Volckertsen whose nickname, Dirck de Noorman, gave the creek its alternate name. By the age of the Revolutionary War, farmers with familiar names like Meserole, Calyer and Provoost all set up stakes here.
During these years, Greenpoint earned its nickname as the 'garden spot' of the region; but with the growth of New York, Brooklyn and Williamsburg in the early 19th century came the industrialization of the shores. The old farms were replaced with factories. Its name became a bit of a farce as oil refineries and shipyards soon defined the area. Bushwick Creek was filled in by the early 20th century.
I found the best little 'old time' map of Greenpoint history which pinpoints the exact area of this original 'green point'. But you're going to want to click into this to see the details (Map courtesy Greenpt):
One hundred years ago: here comes the RMS Olympic, sailing into the harbor at right. The lead ship in the White Star line, the Olympic would be cruising the Atlantic several months later, on the morning of April 15, 1912, when its sister ship the Titanic sent out a distress call, having hit an iceberg several hours previous. The Olympic was, unfortunately, too far to come to its rescue.
In the aftermath, the Olympic crew went on strike, fearful that their vessel was ill-equipted for a similar disaster.
Notice at least nine or ten other boats in the distance, many of them (and most likely, the Olympic as well) containing newcomers on their way to Ellis Island.
Below: two portside views of the Olympic from July 1911 as it pulls into dock, surrounded by tiny little tugboats. I believe these are photos from the vessel's second or possibly even third entry into New York. It was officially launched in June of that year. (You can read more about its first year and its relationship with the Titanic here.)
Pics courtesy the Library of Congress.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge: Robert Moses, Bay Ridge, and the birth of America's longest suspension bridge
With Fort Wadsworth to its side, the last of Othmar Ammann's New York bridges jets out over the Narrows.
PODCAST The longest suspension bridge in the United States, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was one of Robert Moses' most ambitious projects, a commanding structure that would finally link Staten Island with Brooklyn. Today it soars above New York Harbor as one of the finest examples of architecture from the 1960s. But it didn't get built without some serious community outcry, from a neighborhood that would be partially destroyed in its wake -- Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
This is the tale of a 16th century explorer, a 20th century builder and a timeless marvel of the harbor, with a design that takes the curvature of the earth -- and one very, very large boat -- into consideration.
ALSO: The bridge's finest film performance, with co-star John Travolta.
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: The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
This is Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who sailed into the Narrows in 1524, decades before Henry Hudson. Unfortunately, he miscalculated and thought the harbor was a big lake, so he left.
An existing sketch of David Steinman's proposal for the Narrows span. Called the Liberty Bridge, it was a hybrid of the Golden Gate and the Brooklyn Bridge and features bells that would ring out periodically through the harbor. This came very close to being implemented, but the project died in Congress thanks to a New York representative: young Fiorello LaGuardia.
From a Getty Image we find the all-powerful Robert Moses discussing his project on the eve of its opening, November 1964. Many dreamed of spanning the Narrows, but only Moses had accumulated enough influence the see the project to fruition. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Along the Brooklyn shore in 1914 with old Fort Lafayette out on an old reef. The fort was demolished to make way for the base of the bridge. (Courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)
The view in 1963 and the bridge without its roadway, which would be delivered by barges in specifically crafted pieces and hoisted in place. (Courtesy petepix75/Flickr, and has some other great old New York pics in his photostream)
When the bridge opened in November 1964, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, overtaking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The Verrazano-Narrows held that title until 1981 when the Humber Bridge in the UK overtook it. (Pic courtesy NYPL)
From overhead, it's easy to see the challenges faced by Ammann and engineers in designing and constructing the bridge.
A newsreel from 1963, outlining the construction of the bridge and illustrating the dangers workers faced in building it.
The bridge plays a prominent role -- and a tragic one -- in the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever.
A deleted scene from the film prominently highlights the main character's obsession with the bridge:
There are some terrific photos and additional history at Forgotten New York on the opening of the bridge. There's even some aftermath photos of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, after the city ripped away several homes.
You can take a preview peek of Gay Talese's The Bridge here.
And if you ever wondered what it looks like to ride the Queen Mary 2 underneath the bridge, here you go:
NOTE: We mention the Outerbridge in the podcast, the official name of which is 'the Outerbridge Crossing' to sidestep that Outerbridge Bridge issue. Many refer to it as just 'the Outerbridge' to save the syllables.
Bronx-Whitestone Bridge (Bronx/Queens) This intriguing span by Othmar Ammann (builder of six NYC bridges) has a slightly off-kilter name. Whitestone is a neighborhood in Queens and also gives its name to an expressway. To be consistent, shouldn't it be the Bronx-Queens Bridge? Perhaps, but the bridge entrance in the Bronx is west of the neighborhood of Throggs Neck, and that neighborhood already has a bridge named after it -- almost (see below).
Goethals Bridge (Staten Island/New Jersey) The oldest vehicular bridge in Staten Island, this span over the Arthur Kill honors Brooklyn-born George Washington Goethals (at right) who helped construct the Panama Canal. He was also the first consulting engineer for an early version of Port Authority, not their only former employee to give their name to a bridge (see below).
High Bridge (Manhattan/Bronx) The oldest bridge in New York, created in 1848 as part of the Croton Aqueduct water system, is certainly high. But its name has a practical implication. Its creators considered a 'low bridge' -- literally closer to the Harlem River -- but that would require a draw mechanism for boat traffic. The 'high' bridge could transport water unimpeded.
Kosciuszko Bridge (Brooklyn/Queens) The brother of the Pulaski Bridge (see below), this oft-mispronounced crossing is named for Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish volunteer in George Washington's Continental Army who went on to lead battalions in Poland against Russian forces in the 1790s. Like the Marquis de Lafayette, you can find his name in towns and streets across the United States.
Lord Byron once said, "That sound that crashes in the tyrant’s ear – Kosciuszko!" He was probably not referring to the multiple pronunciations. (You'll hear it either as "kahs-kee-OOSH-koh" or, more accutrately, "kohsh-CHOOSH-koh".) [source]
Macombs Dam Bridge (Manhattan/Bronx) This bright swing bridge is familiar to anybody whose been to Yankees Stadium, hovering over the Harlem River. But it harbors perhaps the most violent history of any bridge in New York. Robert Macomb was a miller who received permission from the state in 1813 to place a dam in the Harlem. A private toll bridge sat above the dam, operated by Macomb, making him quite wealthy. Local residents, angered by the useless, ill maintained dam and the hazardous conditions it created, literally took axes to it in 1829.
Pulaski Bridge (Brooklyn/Queens) This critical pass over Newtown Creek separating the two boroughs is yet another bridge named for a Polish hero, in this case Casimir Pułaski (at left). A revolutionary fighting against Russian forces, Pulaski was a political hot potato. But Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin were fans. He was recruited for the American Revolutionary War and once saved the life of George Washington (who also has his own New York City bridge) before dying in battle in Georgia.
Throgs Neck Bridge (Bronx/Queens) Inspired by the name of the neighborhood in which it passes -- Throggs Neck. Popular legend has it that Robert Moses thought the extra 'G' made the name too long, so he chucked it. This would not be Moses' first dance with spelling controversies. (See below) Whether with one G or two, Throg/gs Neck traces its name to an early settler here, the Rev. John Throggmorton. [Read more about it here.]
Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (Brooklyn/Staten Island) The longest suspension bridge in the United State, this glorious span, the last by Ammann, is named both for the slender pinch of water it rises over and the 16th century European explorer (Giovanni da Verrazzano) who first sailed through it. If you sometimes can't remember how to spell the explorer's name, you're not alone. Long after they decided on a name, advocates debated whether he had one or two Zs in the name. (Read more about the debate here.) The bridge goes by one Z; the explorer is frequently spelled with two.
Joseph P. Addabbo Memorial Bridge (Queens) This small bridge, spanning Jamaica Bay between the neighborhoods of Howard Beach and Broad Channel, is named for Queens native and U.S. House Representative Joseph Addabbo, a feisty Democrat who frequently sparred with Ronald Reagan. I put it last on this list specifically because it seems that all the Ds and Bs that appear in Mr. Addabbo's name have successfully made it onto the name of the bridge as well.
Sure, the Narrows looks all nice and calm, until an axe murderer comes along. (Pic courtesy Library of Congress)
The image above is an 1861 illustration -- a Currier & Ives illustration, no less -- of the lovely waters of the Narrows and, behind it, the bucolic loveliness of Staten Island, as seen from the shores of Brooklyn. Out of sight behind the viewer is Fort Hamilton, the coastal fortification completed in 1835 and still operated today as an army base. It gives its name to the surrounding neighborhood, often considered part of Bay Ridge. That floating fort you see in the water is the older Fort Lafayette, which was regrettably demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
See the lovely shore road to the right, offering abundant views of the harbor? And see that charming family, enjoying a lovely walk? Two years earlier, this area was sight of a vicious crime -- a bloody axe murder.
Late in the evening of June 10th, 1859, with the Narrows lit only with lights from docked ships, two young men were stumbling down a road near Fort Hamilton -- most likely the one illustrated -- heavily sloshed from 'intoxicating liquors'. (Are there any other kind?) Some kind of a disagreement took place between the two men -- one James Quinlan and the very unfortunately named Patrick Kilboy.
In the heat of the moment, Quinlan picked up an axe and, in a drunken rage, he sent it into Kilboy's skull. Patrick, bleeding and near death, managed to make it home to his wife, where he died.
These kinds of unfortunate crimes happened often in Brooklyn history and frequently along its busy shoreline. Fort Hamilton was a fully functioning military base but obviously drew its share of rowdies. Things would become increasing intense at the base in the following years with the Civil War; Hamilton and Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island would be recruited to protect the harbor from Confederate invasion during the war.
This brutal crime is briefly mentioned in the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and the names of the perpetrator and victim have been totally forgotten. But two other men associated with the crime pop up several years later, in a more amusing crime caper.
The justice officiating the conviction of Kilboy's murderer was one C.W. Church. In his murder investigation, he found one witness, named James Ferry, who must have been unwilling to testify, as it seems Ferry was forcibly brought in, then arrested.
Several summers later, on July 17, 1867, according to another Brooklyn Eagle article, the judge discovered that somebody had burgled his prized chess set. Whether it be some kind of revenge crime or mere serendipity, the thief was later captured and identified as James Ferry -- either the same man Church had called in as witness to the Kilboy killing, or a startling coincidence.
The Eagle's police blotter sums it all up: "Ferry is now under checkmate, awaiting examination."
Over a 100 years ago, there was once a time you could get your beer, music and mayhem at a Brooklyn 'pleasure park' just a few stops short of Coney Island -- near today's Bensonhurst neighborhood.
Ulmer Park was the lark of William Ulmer, one of Brooklyn's most successful brewers in an age where much of the nation's finest beer was coming from the future borough. The German-born son of a wine merchant who learned the trade from his uncle, Ulmer opened his eponymous brewery in the 1870s at Belvedere Street and soon came upon the idea of opening a park as a way of selling more beer. (Not a bad idea. Jacob Ruppert would have similar designs in mind when he bought the New York Yankees in 1915).
The park would open in 1893 in Gravesend Bay along the southern shore of Brooklyn -- back when there was an actual shore -- between Coney Island farther south and the more conservative Bath Beach resort community to its west. Ulmer Park seemed to have more in common with Bath Beach -- clean, family friendly (keep Dad happy so he keeps drinking!) with a beer garden, carousels and swings, rifle ranges, a dance pavilion and of course plenty of beachfront property.
The park seemed to be particular popular with Germans -- Ulmer after all was German, and this was a beer garden -- and particularly the annual 'Saengerfest' festival. A Times article even claims that 100,000 gathered at Ulmer Park for the end of one such festival.
Below: an illustration of Ulmer Park. Note the grand pier which stuck out into into the bay
We can get a good idea of Ulmer's intentions for the park by looking at his failure at obtaining a "liquor tax certificate" (or license) in a report from 1900. "A picnic ground, or open air pleasure resort, of about two acres" between Harway Avenue and the shore, the park had a bowling alley, a pier with canopied bar at the end, two or three other beer pavilions scattered throughout the property and a hotel.
Ultimately, neither the resort at Bath Beach nor amusements at Ulmer Park could compete with Coney Island which was about to enter its golden age in the early 1900s; apparently, it was grit and decadence people wanted in their summertime Brooklyn getaways. Ulmer closed in 1899.
Below: All aboard the train to Coney Island, Ulmer Park and Bath Beach Above pic courtesy NYPL
The land remained a public space hosting baseball, cricket and track and field events. Eventually it was wiped away and redeveloped. It remains in name only, at the Ulmer Park branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and the name of the neighborhood bus depot.
ABOVE: Satisfied New York filmgoers exit into the lobby, May 1943. WHAT lobby, pray tell? This is the massive 6,000-seat Roxy Theatre, at 153 W. 50th Street, "often cited as the most impressive movie palace ever built" according to Cinema Treasures. Movies at the Roxy were presented with live orchestras and vocals. In this case, the film was the Tyrone Power war thriller 'Crash Dive', accompanied by Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra and vocalists Bob Eberly and Kitty Kallen.
Ms. Kallen, by the way, is still alive; below, you can enjoy a comic-strip advertisement for Halo Shampoo where she was featured in 1954. The Roxy Theatre was torn down in 1960. Today you can eat at TGI Fridays right where these people are standing. See if they have any of Kitty's hits on the jukebox! (Courtesy LIFE images)
New York history news this week:
I've been posting movie history stories this week in honor of tomorrow's re-opening of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. And on Monday, it's free! [Museum of the Moving Image]
Check out this extraordinary photo of the filming of the 1929 World War I picture 'The Battle of Paris', filmed at the old Kaufman Astoria Studios, across the street from where the Museum of the Moving Image stands today. [Greater Astoria Historical Society]
New York Magazine has a very subjective take on the best year in New York's existence, along with the best musical, the best mayor, the best TV show, etc. Do you agree? [New York Magazine]
Meanwhile, the Village Voice does the same with the city's 10 best restaurants in history. Riddle: Babbo is on the list, but not really. [Village Voice]
Hat Check: Miss Weber's Millinery and a few other secrets along Sixth Avenue. [Forgotten New York]
Below: The Roxy's Kitty Kallen, loving her new shampoo! (Courtesy Duke Univ.)
BOWERY BOYS RECOMMEND is an occasional feature where we find an unusual movie or TV show that -- whether by accident or design -- uniquely captures an era of New York City better than any reference or history book. Other entrants in this particular film festival can be found HERE.
When we did our Times Square podcast a few weeks ago, I went looking for photographs that captured its mid-century transition, when the balance between glamour and sleaze began tipping from one extreme to the other. When was the moment that 42nd Street went from meaning one thing, to the other? Had I seen John Cassavetes' 'Shadows' then, I wouldn't have needed to look much further.
'Shadows' has a wonderful mood of melancholy that would go on to exemplify the great New York independent movies of the 1960s and 70s. The long procession of cabs zooming down the avenue, past the Colony Records and the Thom McAn's, past the titillating neon 'FASCINATION' of a 42nd Street theater, would go on to influence the dreams of New York lovers for years after.
Here's the trailer:
A rather startling title card from 'Birth of a Nation' [courtesy the Liberty Lamp]
The question posed in the headline is a fascinating urban legend I've been obsessed with proving (or disproving) for about a year. It pops up occasionally during discussions about New York film history. And I think I've come up with an answer.
D.W. Griffith's 1915 landmark 'The Birth of a Nation' heralded the birth of the Hollywood blockbuster, becoming its first true sensation and inventing production techniques that would become standard issue for the industry. It's also, of course, an incredibly slanted account of the Civil War and its aftermath, glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and presenting a demeaning and racist portrait of Southern blacks.
For all those reasons, the movie is a true archetype, singlehandedly displaying the power and influence, both good and bad, that motion pictures would one day possess. So I was quite surprised a couple years ago to find that the production of this staple of college film courses might have a New York City connection.
Many non-primary sources claim that some scenes depicting Civil War battle were filmed in Staten Island, in an area located around today's Park Hill neighborhood. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation pinpoints it further -- "shooting [the] Civil War battles sequences" around the area of Eibs Pond in nearby Clifton.
One can perhaps imagine the calm, slight hills around the pond standing in for Southern battlefields. But I'm afraid to say this was probably not the case.
Local filming references mostly pop up in books and websites on New York or Staten Island history. The earliest reference I could find was in an AIA Guide from 1968. New York Magazine also trumpeted this tale in 1970, even visiting the alleged filming location.
But you won't find these claims in film history books. Books specifically related to the 'Birth of a Nation' are clear that this was an all-California production: "Filmed at the Reliance-Majestic Studio, Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California, and the various outdoor locations in the area, principally in the the San Fernando and Big Bear valleys and the open country in the Rio Honda." [source]
Staten Island does have an important place in early American cinema. Some of the first fiction shorts were made here, in the South Beach area, in the 1890s, and some consider the area the birth place of the movie western. And Griffith (at left) did indeed make dozens of films in the New York region for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, whose principal studios were in Manhattan.
But Griffith began filming 'Birth of a Nation' from July to September of 1914. He had left both Biograph and New York the year previous and drummed up the finances independently to make 'Nation' himself, as its length and subject matter was still an uncertain risk for a young Hollywood to take. Griffith would return to the New York area in 1919, setting up a short-lived studio in Mamaroneck, New York, a short drive from the Bronx.
Below: Fox Hills, Staten Island, perhaps in the 1910s or 20s [NYPL]
Part of the location confusion may lie in the former name of the Park Hill and Clifton neighborhoods. Around the late 19th century, this area of Staten Island was called Fox Hills, known for its tony golf course and, during World War I, a noted hospital for wounded soldiers. The name is still occasionally used there by residents today.
Fox Hills is also the name of a small neighborhood in Culver City, California, and was also once known for its golf courses. Culver City would become an important home to film studios in the late 1910s, after 'Nation' was finished. But it would not be a stretch to think it was this area that was most likely used for certain shots of the Griffith picture, and not an area of New York thousands of miles away.
This is not to say that New York doesn't have a role in the tumultuous history of 'The Birth of A Nation'. The movie, "a feature film tracing the history of African slavery" according to a notice in the New York Times, made its debut in March 1915 at the Liberty Theatre* on 42nd Street, to both praise and outrage. The film was picketed by the NAACP on a daily basis, and one New York protester got themselves arrested by throwing eggs at the screen. [source]
But the film was a financial success in New York, running for most of the year -- tickets were sold a month in advance, and at an outrageous price of $2.00! -- and it soon swept across the country to similar accolades.
*The Liberty is still standing, in part; its facade has been absorbed that of Madame Toussaud's Wax Museum complex.
**Seems that a commenter on the Staten Island Advance has had a similar idea!
In 1910, D.W. Griffith made one of first films ever produced in Hollywood, CA, appropriately called In Old California. Before then, film production companies were scattered throughout the United States, with two of the most successful based here in New York City.
The American Vitagraph Company, originally located at the Morse Building on 140 Nassau Street, made film shorts on the roof before moving to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood in 1906. Vitagraph is best known for producing a five-part serial on The Life of Moses strung together to make what some call the first ever feature length motion picture.
More influential, however, was probably Edison Studios, the film company owned by inventor Thomas Edison. With principal studios in the New Jersey town West Orange -- and original laboratories in Menlo Park (now Edison, NJ) -- Edison eventually set his sights on a Manhattan studio.
He initially moved into the heart of the city in 1901, in a studio at 41 East 21st. Such a move made sense at the time; movies were only a few minutes long, essentially just filmed sequences of activities, and had no sound. A small studio smack in the center of New York would not have been disturbed by the bustle of the city.
With the growth into narrative films -- longer movies with elaborate sets and casts -- Edison needed to expand into a larger space and in 1908 moved production to a warehouse in the Bronx, at Decatur Avenue and Oliver Place, close to the New York Botanical Garden.
Below: Inside Edison's Bronx studio
"The Edison Studio is said to be one of the finest and largest of its kind in the world," reported [the theatrical trade paper] The Dramatic Mirror. "The building itself is 60 by 100 feet, built of concrete, iron and glass. The scenic end of the studio, corresponding to the stage in a theatre, except that it is not raised is 60 by 60 feet and 40 feet high. Here the scenes for film productions that cannot be made with natural outdoor backgrounds are painted and set." [source]
It was at this new Bronx studio in 1910 that Edison's company produced one of its greatest works, the very first film adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Shot in a week -- rather lengthy for a film shoot in those days -- the loose adaptation featured Charles Ogle as the famed monster. Believe it or not, the film began production on January 17, 1910, and was released by March of that year! Since there just weren't that many movies houses in 1910, a film release constituted about 40 copies which were distributed around the country, then returned several months later.
The film was reportedly lost forever before a single negative was found and restored in the 1970s. I present to you the Bronx-made psycho-horror masterpiece in all its glory:
You can find more information about the film at Frankensteinia.
In honor of the grand re-opening of the Museum of the Moving Image this Saturday, we're going all New York film and media here on the blog, posting some new stuff and re-printing some older ones pertinent to the city's filmmaking history.
Above, you can watch 'Father Gets In The Game', a cheeky short from 1908 that is most likely the very first fictional movie ever filmed in Central Park. 'Father', a lark involving a lecherous old timer who hits the park to pick up ladies, is directed by D.W. Griffith, who would expand into feature length projects several years later, notoriously so with 'The Birth of a Nation' in 1916.
The crudely rendered 'old man' in the picture is played by Mack Sennett, himself a director of early comedies and founder of Keystone Studios. Charles Avery, who plays the butler here, will later become of the Keystone Kops.
(The movie only 8 minutes long. It's followed in the YouTube clip above by another feature from the same year called 'Romance Of A Jewess', also directed by Griffith and starring Sennett.)
By the way, the first new Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast of 2011 will be available on January 21.
Federal Hall, home to the first House of Representatives 1789 [NYPL]
This week the United States got a new Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, and its first female ex-Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. This changing of the guard got me to wondering how many politicians representing New York had ever held this powerful job.
Surprise! No House representatives from the City of New York have ever been Speaker. The closest we've gotten is the otherwise unremarkable John W. Taylor, an upstate New Yorker from the Saratoga region, who briefly held the job in 1820-21. A central New York representative, Theodore Medad Pomeroy, held the post for exactly one day in 1869.
But never fear! America's very first Speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenberg, has a New York connection wholely unique and never to be repeated -- he is the only Speaker to have served within that role in New York proper, in the months of 1789-1790 when the city was also the nation's capital, and the center of government sat in Federal Hall on Wall Street.
And that was not Muhlenberg's only tie to the city. Although he served in the House as a representative from Pennsylvania, he had previously lived in New York for two years during a truly volatile moment -- the years before the Revolutionary War.
His name will probably sound familiar if you're a Lutheran. His father Henry Melchior Muhlenberg is considered "the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in North America," coming to the British colonies from Germany in 1742 by request of several American ministers in need of spiritual direction. Henry spread Lutheranism throughout the colonies, principally to German and Dutch settlers, and for a time in 1751 even lived in New York, uniting the Lutheran congregations here.
He spawned a true religious dynasty as three of his sons entered the ministry. Frederick (pictured below), born in 1750 in Trappe, Pennsylvania, trained at several small churches in the state before moving with his family to New York in 1774. Lutherans were by no means plentiful in New York during this period, but they worshipped in various small congregations throughout the city, including some services at Trinity Church.
Young Muhlenberg, however, took up with a new church situated just east of the city commons, the newish stone Christs Church at the southeast corner of Frankfort and William streets, affectionately referred to as the Old Swamp Church.
When that house of worship was built in 1767, this area of the city, sparsely populated, was called the 'swamp', not so much for the topography perhaps as for the grim-smelling leather shops and tanneries that sat here. Collect Pond, which attracted these sorts of businesses, was but a stone's throw away, and the area retained its air of industry even as the tanneries moved out and the presses (that would soon comprise Park Row's newspaper district) moved in.
The congregation didn't seem to mind however, especially now that they had a venerable Muhlenberg as their leader. And they certainly needed him by this time. In fact, he might had come to New York during this period specifically to reassure a tense congregation amid the tensions that were stewing within the city.
The city of over 22,000 inhabitants was being ripped apart with rebellion, as New Yorkers, caught in an increasing spirit of independence, fought back against British tyranny. From the steps of Old Swamp Church, members would have seen the 'liberty poles', hanging in the commons and festooned with banners, and heard (or participated in) regular rallies there. The clandestine Sons of Liberty would conduct secret meetings in nearby taverns, and services would have been interrupted with sounds of the Sons' many retaliations against British officials.
Congregants felt the inevitability of war; it would surely dominate their prayers by 1774. Having the guidance of Muhlenberg, son of the colonies' most prominent Lutheran, would certainly be of great relief.
It seems, though, that Muhlenberg himself was at odds with his role. He was not bold or rebellious himself and he initially believed the conflicts were none of his business. Even as his brother Peter Muhlenberg, a Virginian who embraced the rebel conflict, would join the fledgling Continental Army in 1775, Frederick himself was not yet convinced. He wrote his brother: "You have become too involved in matters with which, as a preacher, you have nothing whatsoever to do and which do not belong to your office." [source]
Revolution was invitable. But Frederick was a theologian, cautious and steady, and he worried not only for his congregation but for his own family. This passivity would soon fall away. When actual bombs began reigning down on the city, he sent his pregnant wife and children away to Philadelphia. He remained for a few months to officiate over a dwindling flock but soon fled himself in the first months of 1776, looking over his shoulder at a city soon to be paralyzed by war.
Below: An illustration from 'D.T. Valentine's Manual, 1859', looking up from William Street from Frankfort. The building immediately to the left was the old Swamp Church, no longer in service and heavily redone by the mid-19th century.
He returned to New York in 1789 as one of the most powerful men in the new government of the United States. Muhlenberg spent the war in Pennsylvania and soon found his footing there as a political leader, becoming a member of the Continental Congress and later elected as speaker to Pennsylvania's own state House of Representatives in 1780.
According to author Paul Wallace (in his excellent book 'Muhlenbergs of Pennsylvania'), Frederick wasn't merely heeding a patriotic call. He had grown a little exhausted of the pulpit and wanted to develop his new course, one of his very own.
Muhlenberg's austere character and unblemished reputation served him well in politics. He led Pennsylvania's ratification of the Constitution in 1787. When the first national Congress was formed, Muhlenberg represented his state at their first meeting in the new temporary capital and his old home -- New York. His election as Speaker made perfect sense; he had a well-known last name that had helped define American spirituality, and he came from a state neatly between that of President George Washington (from Virginia) and Vice President John Adams (from Massachusetts).
The first House of Representatives met on April 1, 1789, at Federal Hall at the junction of Wall and Broad streets, just south of Old Swamp Church (which now thrived under new leadership). Muhlenberg would help shape the first traditions of the House and define the rules as dictated by the Constitution, its ink still dry and untested. Most notably, his was the first signature to grace the Bill of Rights.
He grew into a tolerant and jovial leader, best known for inviting fellow Congressmen over to his home for fairly elaborate 'oyster suppers'. Muhlenberg would remain Speaker of the House for the entirety of the first Congress, even as they moved out of New York at the end of 1790. He stayed in the House through 1797, become Speaker again for the Third Congress in 1793.
Muhlenberg's name has been attached to some rather scandalous events. He was one of three men brought into the confidence of Alexander Hamilton during a blackmail scandal involving his mistress Maria Reynolds. Muhlenberg was sympathetic to Hamilton's predicament; one of the other three men, political enemy and future president James Monroe, was less so.
In 1796, during congressional battles over funding for the Jay Treaty, Muhlenberg broke a tie vote authorizing the highly controversial treaty to go forward. As a thank-you, his anti-treaty brother-in-law stabbed him in retaliation. He recovered, but family dinners must have been very awkward after that.
Muhlenberg retired shortly thereafter and died in his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1801.
As for the Swamp Church, its members slowly drifted away, and the property was purchased by tobacco mogul George Lorillard. The Lorillards also have very deep scars due to the Revolutionary War, but that is another story.
Below: the location of Old Swamp Church
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Illustration of the Swamp Church from an 1894 New York Times article.
Daredevils trespassing the ice between New York and Brooklyn in 1871.
I spent much of New York's Christmas blizzard nightmare in various airports throughout the country, unable to get back to La Guardia Airport, where it appears I would have just been stranded anyway.
With all the transportation fiascoes, the unplowed streets and the mounting piles of garbage, it seems like it was certainly the messiest of storms. But ranking in ranking it among the worst storms in New York City history, it doesn't even make the top five! According to the city's own 'hazard mitigation plan', "Since 1798, New York City has experienced 23 snowstorms with 16 inch or greater snowfall totals." They also include a list of the most frightening blizzards in the city's history, including the worst in 2006 and one from 1805 that doesn't sound like so much fun ("48 hours of continuous snow").
As horrible as it certainly was, however, imagine it paired with that most peculiar of natural interruptions -- the freezing of the East River.
Having a key waterway turned into a veritable skating rink would be inconvenient today, though not the catastrophe it would have been in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when New York's seaport was one of America's centers of trade. Hundreds of vessels sat paralyzed along the waterfront, dozens more prevented from entering.
Before the railroad, New York relied solely on its ferry system to get people from Manhattan to neighboring towns like Brooklyn and Williamsburgh. These were clearly not functional when the East River froze, as it did on several occasions throughout its history, before heat-generating over development on both shores assured such events would happen less frequently.
Contemporary reports from one freeze in 1857 describe dozens of ferry cancellations in ways that hearken to the scenes in airports just a few days ago, with boats making their way across the river and returning to pick up new passengers -- twelve hours later.
But just as people made the most of the late December blizzard fiasco -- doing wacky things like skiing down Park Avenue at 40 mph -- New Yorkers in the 1850s did not let something like a gigantic ice sheet go to waste. In 1852, "It is estimated that 20,000 persons must have taken advantage of the circumstance to walk, instead of sail from New York to Brooklyn and back."
The thick ice sheet that accumulated over the East River in 1857 seems to have encouraged jovial behavior. Regaling the hundreds of walkers braving the temporary walkway, "the shores of either side were lined with people shouting, hurrahing and having a good time of it generally, and the utmost hilarity prevailed." Among those that crossed the ice in the spirit of fun: the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, "asserting that the trip was made to prove that it was not the wicked alone who could stand in slippery places." [source]
It's all fun and games, of course, until the ice starts melting. During an 1888 freeze, fish sellers at the Fulton Market lowered ladders down to the ice, allowing hundreds to cross. Unfortunately some got caught in the middle, trapped on ice floes, and had to be rescued by passing tugboats.
The year 1875 was an especially cold year, with the East River sitting frozen for almost four days. But an even rarer occurrence happened that year: the freezing of the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey. While other parts of the Hudson regularly froze solid -- indeed, the river was the principal supplier of ice for New Yorkers in the late 19th century -- it was rare to have that span between New York and the shore to the west freeze to the point that people could cross with little difficulty.
It's impossible to know the most severe freeze in the history of New York Harbor, but a leading candidate must certainly be the winter of late 1779-early 1780, which locked British-occupied New York in a sheath of solid ice and kept ships and ferries immobile for over a month. According to historian David Ludlum, "Judge Jones, who lived at Fort Neck (now Massapequa), wrote in his book that 200 provision-laden sleighs, pulled by two horses each, escorted by 200 light cavalry, made the five-mile trip from New York to Staten Island."
The New York Public Library main branch building in 1911. If you'll notice, the lions are not on their pedestals. (Courtesy NYPL)
With the ringing in of another new year comes a new list of institutions, events and accomplishments marking significant milestones this year.
400 Years Ago
Hendrick Christiaensen visits Mannahatta 1611
Who, you ask? Sure, nobody forgets Henry Hudson's voyage to the unexplored river that would soon bear his name or his fateful adventures along the lands that would one day become Staten Island, Brooklyn and Manhattan. But what about the second great adventurer to the region, the Dutch explorer Hendrick Christiaensen, who made his first visit to the future New York harbor in 1611, verifying Hudson's first exploits. He would return later that year with fellow explorer, Adriaen Block. Block's explorations in the following years would officially stake the Netherlands' claims to the region.
Hudson, by the way, was last seen 400 years ago this year, set adrift by a mutinous crew. (More about this in our podcast on Henry Hudson.)
350 Years Ago
Staten Island's oldest town founded 1661
A big anniversary for the borough this year: The first Dutch village was established here in August 1661 on the island the New Netherlanders named for their Staten-Generaal (state parliament). The nineteen Dutch, Walloon and French Huguenot families who moved there called it 'Oude Dorp' for Old Town and often still goes by that name today, in the neighborhood of South Beach, just south of the Verrazanno-Narrows Bridge.
250 Years Ago
City Island founded 1761
The languid little island, known as Minefer's Island back when it was owned by Thomas Pell, had a small population and a minute profile until it was bought by Benjamin Palmer in 1761. Palmer wanted to built a port here to rival New York's; he developed the island, built a bridge to make it accessible and called it City Island, a harbinger of things to come. It never did meet that promise, but the residents who call this quaint, unusual sector of the city home have no regrets.
On your way to City Island, you might be driving along the Pelham Parkway or crossing the Throgs Neck Bridge, which this year turn 100 years and 50 years old, respectively.
200 Years Ago
The Commissioners Plan of 1811
Without the Commissioners Plan, Manhattan might have developed into a confusing tangle of at-odds pathways shaped by private and competing interests. Instead, with the publication of the plan in March 1811, the future development of the island was shaped into north-south avenues and east-west streets.
150 Years Ago
Brooklyn Academy of Music opens 1861
Brooklyn opened its symphonic musical institution in 1861 as a way to keep up with New York's high culture scene. BAM would quickly distinguish itself and outlive New York's own Academy of Music, surviving fires and depressions by expanding its scope into a variety of arts.
100 Years Ago
The Triangle Factory Fire 1911
March 25 will be a very somber day around the Washington Square area, as the neighborhood marks the one hundred anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a terrifying tragedy killing 146 mostly immigrant factory workers which united the city in improving working conditions and building codes.
100 Years Ago
New York Public Library building opens 1911
New York civic leaders had already united their various libraries during the 1890s, and small, community libraries began popping up throughout the city. All they needed now a grand Beaux-Arts home for the finishing touch. The main branch building, constructed by Carrère and Hastings, opened on May 23.
And, as I'm sure you don't need reminding, September will also see the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.