Thursday, August 27, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Civic Virtue


Back in 2011, we wrote a blog post pondering the fate of Frederick MacMonnies's sculpture "Civic Virtue," which is the subject of today's postcard. For once, the story has a happy ending.

Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937) is best remembered today for his statue of Nathan Hale that still stands in City Hall Park,* but at the end of his own lifetime, he was better known for the controversy surrounding "Civic Virtue," which essentially ruined his public career.

The statue’s story begins in 1894 with the death of Angelina Crane, an eccentric, rich widow who lived in the Hotel Brunswick on Madison Square. In her will, Mrs. Crane left $5 to her daughter (who had treated her in “a most undutiful and unnatural manner”), a few thousand dollars to a handful of charities, and the bulk of the money—upward of $50,000—to the City of New York to erect a drinking fountain in her honor.

After a round of lawsuits, in which Mrs. Crane’s daughter was unable to prove that her mother was insane, the city began the process of creating a statue to fulfill Mrs. Crane’s bequest. In 1909, Mayor George “Max” McClellan hand-picked MacMonnies to create the sculpture. (MacMonnies had recently completed a statue of the mayor’s father, Civil War General George B. McClellan, in Washington, DC.) It took MacMonnies five years to create the preliminary designs, which were for a massive work, 57-feet tall, which depicted Virtue (a large male figure) vanquishing Vice (a supine female). The Parks Commissioner and the city’s Art Commission hemmed and hawed over the piece: it was too big; it didn’t take advantage of its proposed location in City Hall Park; it was too architectural for MacMonnies to execute properly. The city told MacMonnies to go back to the drawing board and convinced him to allow architect Thomas Hastings to help him with the new plan. Somewhere along the way, the idea that this be a "drinking fountain" (as stipulated in Angelina Crane's bequest) seems to have been dropped.

In 1919, MacMonnies’s revised (and much smaller) "Civic Virtue" was approved and the finished work was unveiled in 1922. In the new work, MacMonnies continued to represent Virtue as a club-wielding man, while Vice was now depicted as two female women being trampled beneath Virtue’s feet. New Yorkers were immediately up in arms. Virtue was instantly nicknamed “The Rough Guy” in the press and women complained that MacMonnies was unfairly vilifying their sex. The statue stirred up so much public debate that the city held a public hearing on its propriety. At the hearing, Elizabeth King Black of the National Women’s Party declared: “Men have their feet on women's necks, and the sooner women realize it the better!” Popular Mechanics reported the reactions of passersby: "It ain't art to have a guy stepping on a girl's neck that way"; "Huh, those women represent vice
the man doesn't. That's why the women are kicking about it."

MacMonnies didn't help himself by wading into the fray. "God Almighty made men strong and women beautiful," he told the New York Times. "The female form is used to suggest grace and beauty, being combined with the form of the sea-monster to to suggest treachery and guile....when we wish to symbolize something tempting we use the woman's form." MacMonnies also chided people for misreading the statue, pointing out that Virtue's feet stood on two rocks
not on the two womenand that if women didn't understand their own anatomy that wasn't really his fault.

Despite the bad press and poor public reception, there were no immediate plans to do anything about MacMonnies's work. However, by the early 1930s, the city’s newly elected mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, and his Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, had began to publicly discuss moving the piece. In 1941, the statue was removed from its original basin (which was destroyed) and relocated to a spot near Queens Borough Hall. 

In 2012, a secret (or, maybe, not-so-secret) plan was hatched to move the deteriorating statue from Queens to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where it arrived at the end of that year. The statue can now be seen at the intersection of Jasmine and Garland Avenues in Section C of the cemetery.

* The Nathan Hale statue was put in the park to commemorate the spot where he supposedly regretted having but one life to give for his country. Historians now agree that Hale was hanged elsewhere.


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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Lost Brennan Farmhouse where Poe Wrote "The Raven"


Edgar Allan Poe didn't live in New York City all that long, but he left an indelible stamp on the city. Of all the places he lived, only one still survives, Poe Cottage in the Bronx (subject of an earlier edition of Postcard Thursday). But today's postcard, which we acquired recently, 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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If don't follow us on Facebook (hint, hint), you might not have seen that James had an op-ed piece again this week in The Guardian, this one looking at the role Millard Fillmore played in the 1856 presidential election and whether Donald Trump will do the same in 2016. You can read it here.

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James was also interviewed by George Bodarky for WFUV's Cityscape about the origin of New York City private clubs. If you are in NYC, you can hear the interview when it is broadcast this Saturday, August 22, at 7:30 a.m. on 90.7FM. Those of you who are in other parts of the country can stream it or download the podcast at www.wfuv.org/cityscape



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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Apollo 11






Today marks the 46th anniversary of the massive ticker tape parade held for the Apollo 11 astronauts: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins. At the time, many claimed it was the largest ticker tape parade New York had ever seen, but as we were researching Inside the Apple, we found that same claim was made for many parades and it’s almost impossible to verify. (Four million people were said to have attended the Apollo parade—an impressive number, even if it’s not the largest.)

Certainly, it was the longest parade. The city’s traditional parade route runs from Bowling Green Park at the foot of Broadway to City Hall. The Apollo astronauts, however, after receiving the key to the city, continued up Broadway to Herald Square and then on to Times Square. As the New York Times noted, the confetti in Midtown was “made up more of paper towels and pages from telephone directories than tickertape” and that it grew “so dense that the astronauts could hardly see.”

As we write in Inside the Apple:
It was also one of the fastest ticker tape parades. The astronauts started at Bowling Green at 10:17 a.m. (about half an hour ahead of schedule) and arrived on the steps of City Hall just fourteen minutes later! Many people who showed up for the parade were disappointed to discover that the astronauts had already passed them by…. By 1:15 p.m. the astronauts were back at Kennedy airport to go to Chicago. They ended the day with festivities in Los Angeles. Having just been to the moon and back, a quick one-day jaunt across North America must not have seemed like such a big deal.
 


As Buzz Aldrin has been tweeting recently, the astronauts had to go through customs upon their return--follow this link to see the astronauts declaration form ("Departure from: MOON. Arrival at: Honolulu, Hawaii, USA").


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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Postcard Thursday: William Tecumseh Sherman


At the entrance to Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street sits a small landscaped area known as Grand Army Plaza (which, among other things, lent its name to the Plaza Hotel). The square is named for the Grand Army of the Republic (aka the Union army) and features a statue of one of that army's biggest heroes: William Tecumseh Sherman.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
William Tecumseh Sherman arrived in New York City in 1886 to reenter civilian life after retiring from the army. (He served as commander of the army until 1883. In 1884, the Republican Party tried to convince him to run for President, to which he famously replied: “If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.”) 
In February 1891, Sherman died in New York and immediately the Chamber of Commerce began fundraising for an equestrian statue to honor the city’s adopted son. The chamber’s members were the mercantile elite and in many ways they were the people who had most benefited from Sherman’s famed March to the Sea. By utterly subduing the south through a campaign of total war, Sherman had guaranteed that northern industrialists, merchants, and bankers would reap the benefits of the post-bellum economy. 
The commission went to Augustus Saint-Gaudens [who] created a monumental figure of the general astride his horse; he positioned the horse’s rear hooves so they would trample over Georgia pine. The horse and its rider are led forward by an allegorical figure of Victory. (Saint-Gaudens, often harshly critical of his own work, was pleased with the results. He later wrote: “It’s the greatest ‘Victory’ anybody ever made. Hooraah!”) Because Saint-Gaudens disliked the ugly, industrial patina of most metal sculpture, he gilded the general in two layers of gold leaf; when it was erected, it was the only gilded statue in the entire city.... The statue was unveiled on Decoration Day 1903, with prominent national and local dignitaries in attendance. There is an oft-repeated (and certainly apocryphal) tale that one southern woman in the audience, seeing Sherman on his horse and Victory leading him forward, remarked: “Well, isn’t that just like a Yankee to make the woman walk!”
Sherman remains a highly controversial figure, particularly in the states of the former Confederacy. Speaking of controversy: James wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Guardian about the watering down of the AP US History curriculum, which you can read--and, if so inclined, wade into the fray of the 430+ comments.


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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Morningside Heights

This image, produced around 1915, shows the first phase of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (center), St. Luke's Hospital (to the right), and the oldest building in Morningside Heights, the Leake and Watts orphan house (the brick building to the left).

The Leake and Watts building (which blocks where the south transept of the cathedral would go if it were ever to be built), has an odd history. On June 2, 1827, merchant John George Leake passed away at age 75. He had no children or other lineal heirs, so he decided to leave his money to Robert Watts, the son of his best friend, John Watts. There was only one catch: Robert Watts would have to change his last name to Leake in order to claim the inheritance.

It is a little unclear what happened next, but before Robert Watts could get the courts to legally change his name he died of, in the words of one writer, "a severe cold contracted during a game of ball." John Watts was then faced with the dilemma. He didn't really want the money—after all, his son had forsaken him to become John George Leake's heir—but what was he going to do with it?

It turned out that had his son refused the inheritance in the first place, the money would have gone to found an orphanage. So John Watts approached the state to relinquish his claim on the money. In 1831, Leake and Watts Orphan House was founded and in 1843, they moved into their home in Morningside Heights. (At the end of the 19th century, a group of John George Leake's distant relatives wormed out of the woodwork to claim that they had been defrauded of their rightful inheritance. It took some time, but eventually their case was dismissed.)

The early history of the cathedral is almost as convoluted. As we write in Footprints in New York:
The building of St. John the Divine was plagued with problems from the start. The trustees, under [JP Morgan's] guidance, hosted a design competition, ultimately selecting the firm of Heins & La Farge, even though their design was no one’s first choice.

Work on the cathedral didn’t begin until the spring of 1893, and immediately the crew ran into trouble. A foundation that should have taken months to lay ended up taking years. Without anything to show for it, the cathedral was already over budget, so Morgan wrote a check for $500,000, “to get us out of the hole”—literally and figuratively. In 1903, the giant granite columns of the apse were hoisted into place, but by 1905, only one chapel had been completed. Then, in 1907, George Heins died of meningitis. Though the trustees were legally able to break their contract, they allowed La Farge to continue until the apsidal end of the church was complete. This small portion of the cathedral, known as the choir, was consecrated on April 19, 1911. With this milestone behind them, the trustees ended their relationship with Heins & La Farge and hired Ralph Adams Cram to finish the church.
Cram's nave of the church, completed in 1941, was the last major work done on the church, which is still decades away from completion—if, indeed, that day ever comes.



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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Paramount Building


If you stand in the middle of Times Square, you'll immediately notice two things: first, that's a lot of costumed Elmos in such a small space; and, second, one building isn't covered in brightly lit advertising: the Paramount Building.

That advertising is actually required by law:
There shall be a minimum of one illuminated sign with a surface area of not less than 1,000 square feet for each 50 linear feet, or part thereof, of street frontage.
Somehow, the Paramount Building--perhaps due to its landmark status--circumvents the ordinance.

Built in 1926, the Paramount Building was the headquarters of the motion picture company of the same name. Designed by the firm of Rapp and Rapp, the building's pyramidal top was both a response to New York's restrictive 1915 step-back zoning law as well as an homage to the Paramount logo--a mountain topped with stars. In the new building, Rapp and Rapp placed that stars on the four-faced clock atop the tower.

Offices for Paramount were located on the upper stories of the building with a large movie house on the ground floor, designed to mimic the Paris Opera. Later, to boost revenues, Paramount added live shows, including the New Year's Eve 1942 appearance by Frank Sinatra that helped prove he was a superstar. Sinatra came on after Benny Goodman, and Goodman later recalled: “I introduced Sinatra and I thought the goddamned building was going to cave in. I never heard such a commotion with people running down to the stage, screaming and nearly knocking me off the ramp. All this for a fellow I never heard of.”

During World War II, the famous clock was painted black (as were many windows in midtown) to guard against Nazi bombing raids. The clock faces were not restored until 1996.

In 1953, crowds gathered at the Paramount to see the newest Vincent Price vehicle: House of Wax in brand-new 3D.

The theater finally closed in 1964; the space was later leased to the New York Times  and today houses the Hard Rock Cafe. The building was landmarked in 1988.


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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Joe DiMaggio's Hitting Streak


On July 16, 1941, New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio hit safely in his 56th consecutive game, setting a Major League record that has never been broken.

DiMaggio, the son of an immigrant from Sicily, hailed from San Francisco, and grew up near Fisherman's Wharf, where his father worked. As he recalled in his memoir:
Baseball to me in those days was merely an excuse to get away from the house and away from the chores of fishing. When Pop gave up trying to make me work on the boat, I gave up playing baseball in the sand patch by the Wharf, and tried my hand at selling newspapers, a job my father declared suited me perfectly since it consisted mostly of standing still and shouting. 
Vince, who had been far more successful than I in baseball, had quit high school to help support the family, although my mother’s advice was to continue his education. Two years later, I followed Vince. Up to the time my baseball playing had been sketchy. In fact, I almost stopped playing when I was 14. Our home was by Fisherman’s Wharf, close to the old North Beach playground, where I had my first baseball experience at the age of ten. I was third baseman in those days and played well enough to be on the usual teams with the kids around my block. 
Pop, having despaired of my ever becoming a fisherman, urged me to study bookkeeping. ‘It’s a job you can do sitting down,’ said Pop significantly, for he was convinced I was lazy.
After Joe became a superstar, he and his brothers Vince and Dom opened up the restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf shown in today's postcard, mostly as a way to get their father to retire. It's interesting that while DiMaggio spelled his name with no space between the "Di" and the "Maggio," there's not only a space on the marquee of the restaurant but on most of his baseball cards. It's also interesting that on his earliest cards it's "De Maggio" and that, on some, the manufacturers felt the need to put Joe in quotation marks since it was a nickname.


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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Beginning of the Canyon of Heroes

Since tomorrow the U.S. women's soccer team is being feted with a ticker tape parade, we searched our archives high and low for a postcard of a parade up Broadway, but came up short. (An internet search revealed that few, if any, commemorative postcards of parades have been issued.)


Here, instead, is the image of the building that marks the beginning of the so-called "Canyon of Heroes": the Alexander Hamilton United States Custom House on Bowling Green, which sits at the foot of Broadway in the Financial District. Designed by Cass Gilbert and built between 1899 and 1907, the building is a remarkable expression of Beaux-Arts design, and we'll write more about it in a future blog post.

For now, here's our previous write-up of the history of the ticker tape parade:
[In 1886], the official grand opening [of the Statue of Liberty] in the harbor was followed by a parade up Broadway from Battery Park. It was during that parade that some enterprising office worker in one of the brokerage houses on Broadway decided to turn his company’s used ticker tape into confetti. Thus was born the ticker tape parade, an enduring New York tradition.
The parades took a while to catch on. The next one was for Admiral Dewey, hero of the Spanish-American War, following his return from Manila. Then ten years went by before the next parade, for Jack Binns, the radio operator of the RMS Republic. (The Republic had struck the SS Florida in January; because the ship was equipped with wireless radio, Binns was able to send a Mayday signal and the passengers and crew were rescued.) 
In the 1920s ticker tape parades really started to take off. The parades, under the purview of the mayor’s office, were mostly given to arriving dignitaries, sports heroes, or pioneers in flight. The two busiest years were 1951 and 1962, which each had 9 parades. In 1962, honorees were as diverse as John Glenn, the New York Yankees, and Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus.
The Yankees hold the record for most parades at eight. While a handful of individuals have been feted twice (including Glenn), only one person has been honored three times—Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the polar aviator and explorer
If you find yourself in Lower Manhattan, take a stroll up Broadway from Battery Park. All the recipients of ticker tape parades are commemorated in plaques in the sidewalk.
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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Postcard Thursday: Manhattan Sightseeing Cars and the Times Tower

Happy Actual Independence Day!


Today's postcard was mailed exactly ninety-seven years ago on July 2, 1908. It depicts what was then one of New York's most noted skyscrapers, the Times Tower, which had been erected a few years earlier in Times Square. Today, that building's been so altered that it is virtually unrecognizable, but billions of people around the world know it well: it's the spot where the ball drops on New Year's Eve. (You can just see the pole sticking out of the frame at the top of the image.)

This image, however, isn't about the Times Tower -- it shows the fleet of sightseeing cars that left from Times Square to take tourists around the city.



It's hard the read the reverse, but underneath the personal message, it offers an Uptown trip for $1 leaving four times a day or a Chinatown trip twice each evening for $2, including "all expenses." Chinatown tours became very popular at the turn of the 20th century, with visitors being taken to Chinese temples ("joss houses"), restaurants, and sometimes opium dens, almost all of which had been set up exclusively for the tourist trade. These tourist visits upset the police a great deal -- and all of New York's xenophobes, who were trying to force Chinese immigrants to go back to China. Two years later, the police summoned the five sightseeing companies that sold evening trips to Chinatown and told them to cut it out. As The New York Times reported, the police were attempting to make Chinatown a "clean colony," and the tourist excursions were sending the wrong signal. Moreover, the paper of record noted that "the Chinaman is a mysterious being, and there is no telling when he may start a rumpus."

To the best of our knowledge, any police admonition to the sightseeing companies was short lived, and Chinatown remained a key destination for out-of-towners, many of whom had probably never experienced Chinese cuisine or culture before.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Postcard Thursday: The Cylcone

Yikes! Another Postcard Thursday on Friday? We won't make a habit of it, we promise.

Nor will we make habit out of recycling material, but today is the birthday of Coney Island's famous Cyclone roller coaster, so below is the PT post we put up a year ago.

However, while we have your attention -- there are still a few slots left for our Upper Central Park walking tour this Sunday, June 28, at 1pm. Follow this link for all the details and registration information: 


Fans of wooden roller coasters probably already know that today is the 88th birthday of the Cyclone, which opened on June 26, 1927, and is still going strong.

However, the history of roller coasters at Coney Island is much older than the Cyclone; in fact, America's first roller coaster, the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway, opened on June 6, 1884, at an amusement park just off the boardwalk.

The switchback was the brainchild of LaMarcus A. Thompson. Visitors would climb to the top of a tower and board a car that then dropped six hundred feet over an undulating track. At the far end the car would be "switched back" to another track and returned to the tower. Thompson envisioned his ride as wholesome family entertainment -- in a period when amusement parks were often seen as dens of sin and iniquity -- and the cars, traveling at an "invigorating" six miles per hour, provided great views of the Coney Island beach and boardwalk. He charged 5 cents a ride and made back the $1600 he'd invested in the roller coaster in less than three weeks.

It is unclear how long the Switchback Railway lasted at Coney Island (or even precisely where it stood). Despite its early success, Thompson soon faced a host of competitors and his original coaster may only have stood for three years.

By the 1920s, roller coasters were all the rage at Coney Island, and the Cyclone was just one among a number of rides with names like the Tornado and the Thunderbolt.

Of course, when we think of Coney Island roller coasters, we think of this:


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Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers

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