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Monday, March 20, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Frank Lloyd Wright

We've had some glitched before with Postcard Thursday. Astute readers know that is sometimes appears as Postcard Friday, and there might have even been a Postcard Saturday once upon a time.

But Postcard Monday?

Mea culpa.

Today brings you a snowy scene of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Fallingwater, which James wrote about this week in The New York Post. Read all about how to construct your own Wright road trip at

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Great Theater Massacre of 1982

Yesterday, James had a piece in CurbedNY about the history of the Broadway theater district. The story focuses on five Broadway houses that were demolished in 1982 to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel, and wonders if that act of destruction was also part of what revitalized Times Square.

Read the story at

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Read more about NYC history in


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Abraham Lincoln

Earlier this week, February 27, was the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's famed "Right Makes Might" speech at the Cooper Union. We've blogged about this event before (reprinted below) and the speech -- and Mathew Brady's famous photo of Lincoln -- are crucial parts of our Abraham Lincoln chapter in Footprints in New York.

Another image we talk about in that chapter is the one above that shows the moment of the president's death. (And is not reproduced in the book, alas.) As we write, the image
shows the president in repose at the lodging house across the street from Ford’s Theatre. The Lincolns and their friends, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, had gone to the theater on the night of his assassination to see Laura Keene—who Mary Todd Lincoln had enjoyed seeing in New York—in Our American Cousin
In the print, Robert and Mary Todd Lincoln bury their faces in hand- kerchiefs; young Tad Lincoln clings to his mother’s skirts. To one side, many members of Lincoln’s Cabinet look on. The demand for these prints—as well as scenes of Booth’s attack in the Lincolns’ box at Ford’s Theatre—was massive, and Currier & Ives went into overtime production... [and the images] was available for purchase a mere nine days after Lincoln’s death, an unheard of production schedule in 1865.

Rewind the story five years and we find a very different Abraham Lincoln--a small-town lawyer and sometime congressman trying to make a name for himself. 
On Monday, February 27, Lincoln woke [in Manhattan] to find the Republican-controlled newspapers stirring up anticipation for his speech. Some of his hosts, members of the Young Men’s Central Republic Union, called on Lincoln at the Astor Hotel, where they were embarrassed to find him disheveled, dressed in “a suit of black [that was] much wrinkled. . . . His form and manner were indeed very odd, and we thought him the most unprepossessing public man we had ever met.” 
Later that day, Lincoln headed up Broadway to Mathew Brady’s photography studio.... Brady and his assistants posed Lincoln standing, his right hand resting on a stack of books to show his erudition; behind him sits a classical pillar, a similar trope found in many formal portraits and statuary. 
After the photo was taken, Brady retouched it in the darkroom, including fixing Lincoln’s wandering left eye. He couldn’t, however, do anything to make his jacket fit any better—Lincoln’s right shirt cuff sticks out far beyond his sleeve—nor could he do anything to smooth out the future president’s wrinkled suit.
That evening, Lincoln addressed a huge audience at Cooper Union. Industrialist and inventor Peter Cooper had built the school just a year earlier as a free institution of higher learning. The Great Hall remains one of the largest lecture halls in New York, and, as anticipated, Lincoln drew a standing-room crowd. 
The speech, today most commonly known as the Cooper Union Address, was divided into three sections. In the first, Lincoln laid out a lawyerly argument that the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution—“our fathers who framed the Government under which we live,” he called them (quoting his antagonist, Senator Stephen Douglas)—were against the expansion of slavery. In the second section, Lincoln addressed Southerners directly, admonishing them for being the ones stirring up dissent:

"Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please. . . . You will rule or ruin in all events."

Lastly, speaking to the Republicans in the hall, Lincoln tried to hold to a moderate line. He was against slavery, but argued that “wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is” without allowing it to spread to the territories. 
Lincoln closed with the stirring lines that would soon be repeated in newspapers across the country—in all capital letters, as if he were shouting: LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.
While Cooper Union is still going strong, Mathew Brady's portrait studio where he shot the Lincoln portrait is long gone. However, if you find yourself in Tribeca, a building that housed another Brady studio still stands at 369 Broadway. There's no sign or marker, but it's worth taking a look next time you're in the neighborhood.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Postcard Thursday: 1866 Redux

Last July, James wrote a piece for Curbed about exploring modern-day New York City with a handful of 19th-century guidebooks as his only companions. The piece, "A Walking Tour of 1866 New York," has recently been nominated for an award for "Outstanding Achievement in NYC Essay/Article/Series Writing" by the Guides Association of New York City.

While we wait to see if he's won (winners will be announced March 6), here's the link to the story, a fascinating piece of time travel.

There's more history-minded journalism coming soon from James and Curbed, including a story about the Broadway Theater District and another time-travel feature. The best way to keep up on these things is to follow us on Facebook at or Twitter

Those guidebooks have some fabulous advertisements in them. Here's just one example:

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Rise and Fall of New Orange

This weekend marks a little remembered anniversary. On February 19, 1674, the Treaty of Westminster was signed, ending the Third Anglo-Dutch War. While most of that conflict took place in Europe, it did have a brief impact on New York City. Even though the colony of New Netherland had been taken over by the English ten years earlier, Manhattan was briefly held by the Dutch during the war and renamed New Orange.

In September 1664, Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company had surrendered to the English in a bloodless takeover. While the city changed its name from New Amsterdam to New York (in honor of its new patron, James, Duke of York), very little changed in the day-to-day lives of New Yorkers, and the city continued to have a distinct Dutch and Dutch-sympathizing population.

Thus, it wasn't that surprising that when war broke out between the English and Dutch in April 1672 that many New Yorkers favored the Dutch side. In July 1673, Dutch Admiral Cornelis Evertsen arrived in New York harbor and after a brief battle -- aided by New York's Dutch population -- was able to capture the fort at the southern tip of  Manhattan. (That fort, then called Fort James and originally built as Fort Amsterdam, stood on the site now occupied by the Museum of the American Indian.) In September 1673, Captain Anthony Colve arrived to be installed as governor of the colony, which had been renamed New Orange in honor of the Dutch royal family.

Less than four months later, the Treaty of Westminster formally ended the war and handed the colony back to English control. Colve stayed on through October 1674, when his replacement, Sir Edmund Andros, arrived. After a negotiation of the terms of the handover, Andros took over on November 10. The name of the colony reverted to New York, which it has remained ever since.

The image at the top, from the collection of the New York Public Library, purports to show New Orange as it appeared in 1673; however, the engraving was done in the 19th century and there's no corroborating evidence that it was sketched in 1673.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Snow Day

In honor of the snowstorm hitting New York City today, here are some photos from the New York Public Library's digital collection of snowstorms past. The photo above shows a stretch of Fifth Avenue ca. 1905 (the year the photo was printed) after a storm; unfortunately, there aren't enough revealing details to determine exactly where on the avenue this is.

This second card, from the same storm, shows Broadway between 29th and 30th Streets. The photographer was clearly drawn to the irony of the "Sarnoff Straw Hats" sign peeking out of a snow drift, but if you look just to the right of that you'll see the sign for Shanley's, which was a popular restaurant in that era. In operation from the 1890s to 1925, Shanley's was known as a "lobster palace," and a quick perusal of the menu makes it easy to see why: lobster appears in just about every possible preparation, along with oysters, other shellfish, and various unidentifiable dishes such as "cold corn starch."

This final photo may be from the same storm, but doesn't have an easily readable date. These children are sledding -- or "coasting" in the language of the day -- on a hill in Central Park.

Enjoy the snow and be careful out there!

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Postcard Thursday: From Imbolc to Candelmas to Groundhog Day

Today, Punxsutawney Phil, the world's most famous rodent, saw his shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of winter. Now, for anyone paying attention, March 21--the first day of spring--is six weeks away, whether a groundhog sees his shadow or not.

But how did this tradition begin?

Ancient traditions not only marked the beginnings of the seasons (vernal equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox, and winter solstice), but also the midpoint of each season. For winter, that is approximately February 1 or 2, which was known in ancient Ireland as Imbolc, a word which literally means "in the belly." It referred to the time around which ewes and rams would mate. The date is also 40 days after Christmas, which in the Christian tradition is celebrated as Candelmas, the commemoration of Jesus' presentation in the temple and the end of the Christmas/Epiphany season.

In northern Europe, Candelmas became the day when farmers would begin to predict whether or not there would be an early thaw. As one early poem put it, "If Candlemas day be dry and fair/The half o' winter to come and mair [more]."

We don't know exactly how this then transformed into small animals predicting the weather. In France it's a marmot; in Germany, the animal is traditionally a badger. By the 1840s, the groundhog had been attached to the holiday in the United States. Since 1887, the town of Punxsutawney, in Pennsylvania, has hosted groundhog festivities. As celebrations of Candelmas became less important in American life, Groundhog Day took its place. There are now many competing groundhog prognosticators, including Staten Island Chuck who--for the record--did NOT see his shadow, thus predicting an early spring.

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Apollo Theater

On January 26, 1934, the Apollo Theater opened on 125th Street in Harlem. Though the building it was housed in was twenty years old, the new theater reflected the changing demographics of the neighborhood. Previously known as the Harlem Opera House, the theater had presented a long-running burlesque show to an all-white audience. With its rebirth as the Apollo, the space would now welcome black audiences and changing its programming accordingly.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The Apollo Theater, originally a whites-only burlesque house, reopened in 1934 with “Jazz a la Carte” and soon inaugurated its famed Amateur Night. One early winner, Ella Fitzgerald, became a fixture on the Harlem music scene with a regular gig at the Savoy Ballroom. By the mid-1930s, every prominent black musician in America—including Eubie Blake, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, and Dinah Washington—was performing in Harlem. Indeed, many of these musicians could perform nowhere else, as strict musicians’ union codes kept them from downtown theaters because of their race.

A major refurbishment in 1985 launched "Showtime at the Apollo" as a national television program; more recent renovations have restored the facade and interior to their 1930s glory.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Postcard Thursday: 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 York, so 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
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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Hamilton on Wall Street

courtesy of the New York Public Library

Yesterday, January 11, marked Alexander Hamilton's birthday. He was born either in 1755 or 1757, the "bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar" (in President John Adams's low estimation) on Nevis in the Caribbean. As a child, he moved to St. Croix and then, as a teenager, to New York, where he enrolled in King's College (later Columbia University) in downtown Manhattan.

Of course, you can read all about Hamilton's extensive life in New York in Footprints in New York (or see that impossible-to-get-tickets-to musical on Broadway).

For decades after Hamilton was killed in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804, he was memorialized around the city, perhaps no place more famously than in the Merchants Exchange on Wall Street. In the spring of 1835, a group of traders erected a fifteen-foot marble statue (shown above) of Hamilton that had been sculpted by Robert Ball Hughes. The former Treasury Secretary's republican values are symbolized by the toga he wears over his suit. The scroll in his hand may be one of the many laws Hamilton helped pass that created the American financial industry.

This statue was destroyed just eight months after it was unveiled in the Great Fire of 1835. As we write in Inside the Apple:
On the night of December 16, 1835, a gas line broke in a dry goods store near Hanover Square in the Financial District; the gas, ignited by a coal stove, caused the store to explode and the ensuing fire quickly fanned southward along Stone Street and northeast toward Wall Street. Not only was it the worst fire in New York’s history, it wiped away almost all of the remaining traces of the old Dutch and British colonial city.... 
The blaze raged for over a day, destroying over 600 buildings in about 50 acres of the old city, including the home of the New York Stock Exchange, the old city post office, and many warehouses and counting houses on which the city depended. Though the neighborhood was still a mix of commercial and residential structures, fortunately only two people died.
Alexander Hamilton in Central Park
Despite a valiant attempt to save the marble Hamilton statue, it was destroyed along with the Merchants Exchange. Forty-five years later, a new statue was paid for
by Hamilton’s youngest son, John C. Hamilton, and it stands in Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This remarkable in that it is made entirely of granite—not the easiest stone to carve—and it has long been thought that John C. Hamilton commissioned the work out of this durable stone so that no matter what calamities might befall Central Park, his father’s statue would endure.

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