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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Hidden History: Lower Manhattan Walking Tour

Hidden History: Lower Manhattan Walking Tour

Saturday, April 21, from Noon-2pm

Join James Nevius, author of Inside the Apple and Footprints in New York, for a walk around the Financial District in search of moments from the city's rich history that have faded from view. We'll search out forgotten marble markers, obscure statues of famous people (and famous statues of obscure people), explore the remnants of the Dutch village of New Amsterdam, and discover why New Yorkers a century ago were OBSESSED with the American Revolution. Whether you've traversed this neighborhood your whole life or are new to the area, this tour will likely show you places you've never seen before.

EARLY BIRD SPECIAL: Reserve on or before Friday, April 13, you can reserve spots for just $20 per person, after which time the price will jump to $25 per person.

TO RESERVE: Send your name, the number of people in your group, and a contact number (in case we have to contact you on the day of the tour) to We will send you a confirmation with details of where to meet within 24 hours.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Happy Birthday, Saint Nick

Saint Nicholas (the patron saint of -- among other things -- sailors, repentant thieves, brewers, and pawnbrokers) was purportedly born on March 15 in the year 270 CE. Of course, what Saint Nicholas is most famous for these days is as the basis for our modern-day Santa Claus, a Dutch tradition that was popularized in New York City by its Dutch-American inhabitants, including poet Clement Clarke Moore.

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a mouse.

Those immortal words, first published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel in 1823, have become a central part of the American Christmas story. They were penned by Moore, a prominent New Yorker; together with Thomas Nast's depictions of Santa later in the century (such as the 1881 version pictured here), Moore's poem helped shaped our modern ideas of Santa Claus.

Moore was a major landowner and important to the growth of both Greenwich Village and Chelsea. As we write in Footprints in New York:
To his contemporaries, Moore was best known as a Greek language scholar at the Episcopal Church’s General Seminary, and for his vast farm, Chelsea, which gave rise to the neighborhood of the same name. Today, people recognize him as the author of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka “Twas the Night Before Christmas”), the well-known poem that imbued the American Santa Claus with a healthy dose of his mother’s family’s Dutch traditions. 
In Inside the Apple, we note that
Moore was descended from distinguished New York families: his large family estate, Chelsea, which gave rise to the modern-day neighborhood, had originally been owned by his grandfather, Major Thomas Clarke, a veteran of the French and Indian War. Moore’s father, Bishop Benjamin Moore, was the head of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and twice president of Columbia College. 
In 1817, soon after Bishop Moore’s death, the Episcopal Church convened in New York to establish the General Theological Seminary. Jacob Sherred, a member of the Trinity Church vestry, donated $70,000 and Clement Clarke Moore agreed to donate 66 lots from his Chelsea estate to house the school. (The seminary met elsewhere until construction could begin in the 1820s.) Moore, already the author of a well-regarded Hebrew lexicon, was also hired to serve on its faculty, teaching Biblical languages until 1850.
Thomas Nast, meanwhile, is probably best remembered today for his role in bringing down William "Boss" Tweed through his political cartoons in The New York Times and Harper's Weekly. Nast's poison pen was so famous, in fact, that there's a folk etymology that the word "nasty" comes from his name. That's not true, but it gives a sense of how damning his pictures could be.

Nast is also the person who gave us the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party and the donkey for the Democrats. In an 1870 issue of Harper's WeeklyNast launched the donkey as a symbol of the Democratic party. In the cartoon, Nast was lambasting the Copperhead faction of the party -- which had opposed the Civil War -- and those Democratic papers that continued to criticize Lincoln's recently deceased Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. Nast's critique is not terribly subtle: Stanton is "lionized" by the cartoonist and the Democrats are branded jackasses.

Despite Nast's pointed political statements, he had a soft spot for the holidays. Beginning in 1863, he would draw pictures of Santa Claus or families celebrating together for Harper's, culminating in 1881 with the image at the top of this post, which is still seen by many as the iconic depiction of St. Nick.


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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Lillian Wald and International Women's Day

In honor of International Women's Day today, here's an update of a post we ran two years ago about Lillian Wald, the remarkable woman who founded the Henry Street Settlement. This Saturday would have been her 151st birthday.

On March 10, 1867, the pioneering nurse Lillian Wald was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is the subject of one our chapters in Footprints in New YorkAs we write, Wald
came to New York City in 1889 to study nursing; three years later, having worked for a time in the overcrowded conditions at New York’s Juvenile Asylum on Tenth Avenue, Wald decided to improve her training, enrolling in medical school. 
While studying, Wald also volunteered at a school on Henry Street; it was there that an encounter with a young girl—in the midst of a lesson on how to make a bed—changed her life. As Wald recalled in her memoir:

The child led me over broken roadways—there was no asphalt, although its use was well established in other parts of the city—over dirty mattresses and heaps of refuse . . . through a tenement hallway, across a court where open and unscreened [water] closets were promiscuously used by men and women . . . and finally into the sickroom. . . . That morning’s experience was a baptism of fire. Deserted were the laboratory and the academic work of the college. 
It wasn’t long before Wald hit upon the notion of a “settlement” house— unaware that other progressive health professionals were having the same idea. The idea was simple: Too often, charity work consisted of throwing money at the poor, or convening panels or government agencies to study a problem.... Wald wanted something different—a place where professionals would actually help the poor on an ongoing basis. In order to do that, they would need to live, or “settle” in the neighborhood. Wald and her friend, a fellow nurse named Mary Brewster, moved to a tenement on Jefferson Street, originally dubbed Nurses’ Settlement.


There were few doctors on the Lower East Side, and most tenement dwellers would not have been able to afford them anyway. Wald’s team of nurses made the rounds to the tenements (today’s Visiting Nurse Service of New York is the direct descendant of Wald’s settlement house), helping expectant mothers, acting as midwives, and focusing on preventative care. Wald coined the term “public health nurse” to describe her work, and over the course of her lifetime, thousands of families benefited from her care. In 1895, financier Jacob Schiff bought Wald an old townhouse at 265 Henry Street as the settlement’s new headquarters. Over a century later, the organization is still there.

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we will be leading a walking tour of

Lower Manhattan's Lost History

details to come


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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Postcard Thursday: 1868

In 1868 -- one hundred and fifty years ago -- the department store James McCreery and Co. opened at the corner of Broadway and 11th Street. While the city had been expanding northward since the layout of the famous grid in 1811, that growth had always been slow, and for many people, Greenwich Village remained the hub of the city. The stretch of Broadway that James McCreery picked for his new store, across the street from Grace Church, had tremendous curb appeal.

James wrote a piece for The New York Post about 1868 real estate that appeared in today's paper. Since the early 1970s, McCreery's has been an apartment building, and James looks at it and other homes in the Village -- and around the city -- that are currently on the market.

You can read the story at

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Remember the Maine!

Today marks the anniversary of the sinking of the USS Maine, which went down in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, and sparked the Spanish-American War. Though the war is less remembered today than perhaps it should be, it was very important to the United States territorially. By the end of the conflict, America had gained control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, and had established a military presence on Cuba that remains to this day.

The war is also famous in New York for ratcheting up the so-called "yellow journalism" of Joseph Pulitzer's World and William Randolph Hearst's Journal American. Together, these two newspapers whipped up the reading public's frenzy for war and against Spanish imperialism. (Though not often quoted today, the full slogan of the war was "Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!")

As we write in Inside the Apple:

As Cuban citizens struggled for their independence from Spain, the U.S. sent the battleship Maine to Havana to patrol and protect American commercial interests. On the night of February 15, 1898, the Maine’s forward ammunition magazines exploded and the ship sank. Two days later, Pulitzer’s World asked: “Maine Explosion Caused by Bomb or Torpedo?” Hearst’s Journal didn't bother to frame it as a question, merely stating that the “Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy.” (A hurried investigation by a U.S. Naval board of inquiry determined that the Maine had been felled by a Spanish mine; in truth, the cause of explosion will likely never be known, but may have been caused by a spontaneous explosion in the coal boiler.) 
Two days later, Hearst upped the ante by announcing a “National Maine Monument Committee” to raise funds to commemorate the 258 men who’d died in the explosion. With the rallying cry “Remember the Maine!” on everyone’s lips, the United States officially called on Spain to leave Cuba. A month later, Spain declared war on the United States. 
The most famous example of yellow journalism is also probably apocryphal. As tensions in Cuba were mounting, Hearst sent artist Frederic Remington to create illustrations for the Journal. Bored at the lack of action, Remington is said to have telegraphed: “There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst allegedly blasted back: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Though this story was reported as early as 1901, the telegrams in question no longer exist and many scholars believe the incident was created.
Hearst's "National Maine Monument Committee" took 15 years to do its work (even though the war only lasted four months), but in 1913, the Maine monument was unveiled at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park.

The figural group at the front of the statue (pictured above) is called The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting the Flight of Peace and Fortitude Supporting the Feeble (we kid you not), and represents America preparing for war. Once upon a time, the young man on the prow of the ship would have clutched a sword; it was stolen years ago.

Around the back of the monument is The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War (though, again, the sword is missing).

Atop the monument, covered in gold, is the goddess Columbia emerging triumphant from the sea. Underneath the gold leaf, the statue is made from the munitions from the USS Maine that were dredged from the bottom of Havana harbor.

(This post is adapted from one that appeared on February 15, 2011)

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Samuel Tilden

Tomorrow marks the 204th birthday of Samuel Jones Tilden, lawyer, governor of New York, and man who won the presidency in 1876 -- only to have it stolen from him in some Electoral College shenanigans.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
In the history of American politics, there is no presidential election as contentious as the 1876 contest between New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden and Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. 
Tilden, famous for his prosecution of William “Boss” Tweed was billed as the Reform-minded outsider Democrat who could combat the corruption that had flowered in Washington under President Ulysses S. Grant. The party hoped that Tilden, despite his basically chilly demeanor, could appeal to northerners and southerners alike....
 As the votes rolled in, the press was generally reporting that Tilden had won.
However, the New York Times, sensing that the election would be close in Louisiana, South Carolina, Oregon, and Florida, prepared an editorial that ran the next day entitled “A Doubtful Election,” laying out the scenario that the election still hung in the balance. After meeting with Republican leaders, the Times managing editor, John Reid, sent telegrams to Republican governors in the disputed states: Hayes is elected if we have carried South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana. Can you hold your state? Answer immediately. 
When the governors replied that they could try to “hold” their states—despite election returns tilting in Tilden’s favor—the most fractious post-election period in American history began. Not even the Gore/Bush imbroglio in 2000 can match the months that followed November 1876. In canvasses roiled by partisanship, the three southern states in dispute certified two sets of returns and sent them to Washington—one for Hayes and one for Tilden. With the votes from those states thus rendered void, neither candidate had a majority....
In the end, a commission was appointed to determine the winner. "Along completely partisan lines, the commission voted 8-7 in favor of Hayes in each disputed case, giving him the electoral votes he needed to secure the presidency."

Tilden is also known today for his house -- which is actually two side-by-side townhouses that he bought and joined together -- that are now home to The National Arts Club. James wrote a story of the club's history, including Tilden's renovation of the home, for Curbed New York which you can read at

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Postcard Thursday: In the Papers

These personal ads graced the front page, first column, of The New York Daily Herald on February 1, 1868 -- exactly 150 years ago today -- and give an insight into how New Yorkers who were not personal friends communicated in the age before Snapchat and dating apps. What makes them so tantalizing is that each advertisement had to be pithy and include only as much information as to make it relevant without revealing anyone's true identity. (Much like Twitter would be if Twitter wasn't a morass of political name-calling.)

They are all good (and just a small sampling of the ads that ran that day) but this is a favorite:
"The charming ladies (in carriage) who so kindly noticed tall gentleman, with dark mustache, and who returned salutations and and waving of handkerchiefs when opposite 37 Broad Street, may confer favors by addressing Banker, Herald Office."
This second advertisement, also from Feb 1, 1868, is from the back page of The New York Times. The notice takes up almost an entire column (see it here) and is for a proposed home for soldiers who'd been injured in the Civil War.

As Brian Johnson notes in "The Gettysburg Compiler":
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the number of men who had suffered debilitating wounds was staggering and the need to do something for them was great. Nearly 300,000 Union soldiers had survived gunshot wounds and nearly 30,000 had suffered amputation. Disease, the greatest killer of Civil War soldiers, probably disabled even more than battle wounds.
 A home for wounded and disabled veterans seemed necessary and in the 1860s, as this advertisement attests, fundraising for the project was moving forward quickly. The site, on the very spot where one of the war's most important conflicts took place, seemed fitting. What could go wrong?

The whole thing turned out to be a fraud. The New York backers "authorized an illegal lottery of shoddy diamonds, and appointed the board of managers." Then, an "inquiry exposed the Asylum as nothing more than a tax fraud scheme for the benefit of the New York investors. Pennsylvania’s tax laws...could be more easily exploited than in their home state, and the idea of a Gettysburg Asylum for Invalid Soldiers offered the perfect guise."

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Grand Central Terminal

The above advertisement for Grand Central Terminal, produced in 1918, shows the area around Park Avenue and 42nd Street before most of the current skyscrapers were built. (You can see the Yale Club, which James wrote about for Curbed a couple of years ago, on the Vanderbilt Avenue side of the terminal; it opened in 1915.)

On the right side of the flyers is a partial list of some of the "unusual features" that set Grand Central apart from its competitors:

Indeed, this novel system of moving pedestrians around the terminal was a great contrast to the deep staircases at Penn Station. It was later adopted both by other railroad stations and classic airport terminals, such as the TWA terminal by Eero Saarinen at JFK.

Commodore Vanderbilt's original impetus to put Grand Central Station on 42nd Street was a New York City ordinance that forbade steam locomotives traveling farther south. Before 1871, teams of horses were hitched to passenger cars and the carriages were hauled down to the depot farther downtown. Vanderbilt rightly surmised that if the terminal was moved to 42nd, the city would ultimately come to him. By 1918, theaters had moved to Times Square and the IRT subway connected downtown to the Upper West Side via 42nd Street (and a stop beneath Grand Central), making the street the most important in the city.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Postcard Thursday Redux: Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe! Born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Poe would, in his short life, become one of the most important American writers of all time. He invented the modern detective story, was an early champion of not just horror but science fiction, was a brilliant poet, and a cunning hoaxster.

Below are some highlights from posts we've done about Poe over the years. Of course, he also has an entire chapter in Footprints in New Yorkso pick up a copy today!

Edgar Allan Poe didn't live in New York City all that long, but he left an indelible stamp. Of all the places he lived, only one still survives, Poe Cottage in the Bronx. The postcard above depicts what is considered by many to be Poe's most important NYC residence -- the place where he wrote "The Raven."

As we write in Footprints in New York:
As [Poe's wife] Virginia’s tuberculosis worsened in 1844, the Poes took the only advice most doctors could give: move out of the city and get her into cleaner air.... [T]hey rented rooms from Patrick and Mary Brennan in “an old-fashioned, double-framed” farmhouse on the west side on what would eventually be 84th Street. The house was surrounded by 216 acres of woods. According to one of Poe’s earliest biographers, the family “received no visitors, and took their meals in their room by themselves.” Mrs. Brennan recalled Poe as a “shy, solitary, taciturn person, fond of rambling alone through the woods or of sitting on a favorite stump of a tree near the banks of the Hudson River.” In Poe’s era, Riverside Park had not been created, and the waterfront was not yet developed this far north. This meant Poe probably didn’t actually scramble all the way down the Hudson’s banks for his reveries; he watched the river drift by from the top of [a nearby outcropping of rock known as] Mount Tom.
courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York

The Poes’ room—unaltered until the house was torn down in 1888— was small but filled with light, having windows that faced the river on one side and the Brennans’ forest on the other. Years later, people who knew the house recollected that the Poes’ room was exactly like the chamber in “The Raven,” complete with the “pallid bust of Pallas” above the door. This may have been wishful thinking, but the house does seem, from photos and drawings, to have been a pleasant place. Pleasant enough, in retrospect, to make one almost forget the Poes’ straitened circumstances. Poe had difficulty making the rent. For much of his marriage, he had trouble putting food on the table. When Poe won a $225 judgment in a libel lawsuit, he used the money to buy some furnishings and a new suit; he could never afford to own more than one suit at a time, and the previous one was probably beyond repair.
Most inconveniently, the Brennan house’s distance from the city may have provided fresh air, but it also meant that any time Poe needed to meet with a publisher, he either had to take a stagecoach down the Bloomingdale Road—a costly inconvenience—or walk the ten miles round-trip.

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Poe Cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx; courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Poe Cottage, the third-oldest building in the Bronx, is open for visitors on weekends. If you want to travel farther afield, you can actually stay in a full-sized replica (above) of the house at the Dearborn Inn in Michigan.

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The morning of April 13, 1844, New Yorkers awoke to find an astonishing headline in the New York Sun:
The article went on to detail how Monck Mason and his traveling companions had set off from England in the gas-filled balloon Victoria and landed in Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, three days later. An amazing triumph, Monck's flight promised to revolutionize transportation and communication.

Of course, it wasn't true. Two days later, the Sun had to publish the following retraction:
The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England, the particulars of which from our correspondent we detailed in our Extra, we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous. The description of the Balloon and the voyage was written with a minuteness and scientific ability calculated to obtain credit everywhere, and was read with great pleasure and satisfaction. We by no means think such a project impossible. 
The hoax was the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Nine years earlier, the Sun had perpetrated the "Great Moon Hoax," and, as Matthew Goodman argues in his book The Sun and the Moon, Poe was annoyed at the newspaper for, in his mind, appropriating an idea from one of his own short stories for that series. The balloon hoax may have been Poe's way of getting back at the newspaper. If Poe is to be believed, the balloon hoax brought on a surge in sales for the Sun--and thus would have caused them great embarrassment when the story had to be retracted. (There's some thought that it was Poe who wrote the retraction, as well.)

The complete balloon hoax can be read online at

(If this post seems familiar, it is; it is largely a repeat of our post from last year on Poe's birthday.)

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Skyrise for Harlem

Skyrise for Harlem; Esquire magazine, April 1965
There's a terrific exhibit at the Queens Museum called "Never Built New York," that features dozens of plans for unbuilt architecture that would have remade the city. (The show only runs through February 18, so catch it while you can.)

When we were visiting the show in October, we were struck by the plan from 1965 to tear down much of Harlem and replace it with giant, 100-story towers (seen above). James researched the subject further and his essay on "Skyrise for Harlem" appeared yesterday in Curbed NY. The story not only outlines the plan -- which architect Buckminster Fuller created with writer June Jordan -- but also looks at how Harlem real estate transformed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

You can read the story here:

From the ARCH/CAEHT plan for the East Harlem Triangle redevelopment; from the Louisiana State University archives

Fuller and Jordan weren't the only planners who were trying to figure out how to improve housing conditions in Harlem in the 1960s. The drawing above is from the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem's suggested plan for the rezoning of the East Harlem Triangle. As James notes in his article:
In 1964, the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH) was founded to serve, in the words of architectural historian Brian D. Goldstein, as a “community design center” but then transformed—as the influence of black nationalism became more prominent in Harlem’s political life—into a way to “resist and revise official urban development plans".... Take, for example, the ARCH proposal for the East Harlem Triangle redevelopment.... The city’s plan was to turn the area—the triangle bounded by Madison Avenue, 125th Street, and the Harlem River—into an industrial zone. Pushback from the newly formed Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle (CAEHT) convinced the city to consider alternate proposals. Working with CAEHT, the planners at ARCH, led by its director, African-American architect J. Max Bond Jr., produced a plan that would not only radically transform the East Harlem Triangle, but would create a “distinctively black and democratic urban space.” 
As opposed to “Skyrise for Harlem,” the East Harlem Triangle plan advocated the preservation of newer townhouses and tenements, while new construction would preserve “positive features of the present living patterns".... On a reconfigured 125th Street, most of the traffic is eliminated in favor of wide sidewalks and tree-lined medians with bench seating. Typical examples from the urban planning wishlist are present, like a dedicated lane for bus traffic, while very specific symbols of Harlem abound: the bus boasts an ad for Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam. A man in a dashiki stands in the median, while a woman on the sidewalk raises a black power salute.
The Queens Museum panorama, with some of the Fuller/Jordan Skyrise towers superimposed over Harlem

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Speaking of Curbed, three of James's pieces were singled out for the "Best of 2017" lists for both the local and national sites this year:

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