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Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Greenwich Village: Today and Yesterday

Eighth Street, ca. 1945, by Berenice Abbott

Seventy years ago, photographer Berenice Abbott and writer Henry Lanier published Greenwich Village: Yesterday and Today, a book that was one part photographic portrait of the neighborhood, one part history, and one part (quasi) walking tour.

Earlier this summer, James headed out with a copy of the book to see how much of Lanier and Abbott's neighborhood still exists. The results were published today by Curbed NY and can be read at 

Abbott's photos, while not as famous as those she took in the 1930s for Changing New York, capture the Village on the cusp of change. As James notes in the article, many of the places Abbott photographed were already on the verge of closing when she captured the images. Some of the Abbott photos that weren't reproduced in the story are included below.

The Lafayette Hotel, ca. 1945, by Berenice Abbott

Edward Hopper in his studio, ca. 1945-48, by Berenice Abbott

Children playing in Washington Square Park, ca. 1945, by Berenice Abbott

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Saturday, June 1, 2019

Urban Archive's "My Archive"

From June 1 to June 30, New York's Urban Archive is collecting photos shot in New York City for their "My Archive" project, which documents scenes from all around the city.

As the website explains:
New York, dig into your family archives and join us in telling the story of our city! For the entire month of June, we are once again collecting personal histories and photographs of New Yorkers captured on city streets across the five boroughs. 
Submissions will be accepted between June 1 and June 28. All photographs that meet the selection criteria listed below will be added to our permanent, citywide archival collection. 
With the help of our esteemed panel of Quintessential New Yorkers, we will also pick 25 stories from the submission pool to highlight in Urban Archive and feature on LinkNYC kiosks in proximity to where the photographs were originally taken. Selected submissions will be announced on July 12, 2019.
That panel of "quintessential" New Yorkers includes actor Debi Mazar, Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin, artists James and Karla Murray, artist/entrepreneur Dave Ortiz, and.... us! So if you have a photo taken in New York City before 2005 and have a story to tell, visit

to read the official rules and submit! We're looking forward to seeing your images.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Law and Order: New York on Screen

Next year, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit will launch its twenty-first season, becoming the longest-running prime-time television show in history. (The current season wraps up next week.)

For thirty years and hundreds of episodes, the various versions of Law and Order have depicted a New York City that is both real and unreal at the same time. This week for Curbed New York, James explored his personal relationship to the show and how the New York City it depicts has changed over time.

Read the full story at

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Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City

and don't forget our chapter on New York in the movies in
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The First License Plate

1902 advertisement for the Moyea, available from a deal at 3 West 29th Street

On April 25, 1901, New York State became the first in nation to require license plats on automobiles. The plates were not issued by the state -- that practice would not begin until 1903 in Massachusetts -- but instead had to be created by vehicle owners.

As explained by the website
From 1901 thru mid-1903, New York State required automobile owners to file an application with the state, and upon receipt of a certificate in return, motorists placed their initials on the rear of their machines.... [U]se of the owner’s initials as a means of identification greatly facilitated law enforcement and made drivers more accountable for the way in which they operated their automobiles.
Holding drivers accountable was certainly on the minds of New Yorkers: the first automobile traffic fatality in the nation had occurred in New York in 1896, and skyrocketed from there. In 1913, 221 people were killed in car crashes in the city, most of them pedestrians. (To help alleviate the menace of vehicular traffic, the city installed its first tricolor traffic signal in 1920; officials have been trying to figure out other ways to calm traffic in the city ever since.)



Thursday, April 18, 2019

Some Spring Updates from Michelle and James

Spring Updates from

Michelle and James Nevius

Two new articles by James Nevius:

Recently, James had two interesting stories published on the architectural history of the New York.

In Curbed New York, he authored a history of the Grand Hyatt Hotel (formerly the Commodore) next to Grand Central Terminal. The hotel opened a century ago and is now slated for demolition. James chronicles the various twists and turns in the story, including Donald Trump's mid-1970s "rescue" of the hotel.

Then, in The New York Post, James took a look at the history of tin ceilings, which were once common not just in the New York but around the country.

sponsored by the Merchant's House Museum and Village Preservation
TUESDAY, JUNE 18, at 6:00PM

After the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants came to America, most of them making New York City their first stop. While the Lower East Side and Little Italy are well-known for their immigrant history, many may not remember that the area south of Washington Square was one of the most densely populated Italian precincts in the country.

This illustrated presentation will look at how the Village came to be separated into a wealthier area north and west of Washington Square and a more working-class neighborhood to the south and east. We’ll look at who paved the way for Italians in the district and talk about the importance of holding on to the Italian places that still exist in the area -- RIP Trattoria Spaghetto -- so as to preserve this heritage.


Thursday, March 21, 2019

March 21, 1831: NYC's First Bank Robbery

In honor of the 188th anniversary of this notable event, enjoy this entry from the Inside the Apple archives.

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When workers arrived at the City Bank at 52 Wall Street on Monday, March 21, 1831, they were in for a rude shock. Sometime over the weekend—probably the evening of March 19 or the early morning hours of March 20—the bank had been robbed of $245,000 in bank notes and Spanish doubloons. This was New York’s first-ever bank heist.

Though suspicion immediately fell on workers at the bank, the police had little time to investigate the employees before they received a tip from Mr. Bangs, the proprietor of a “respectable private boarding house” (according to the New-York Evening Post) who was leery of his newest tenant.

On the Monday following the robbery, a man calling himself Mr. Jones had arrived at Mr. Bangs's boarding house on Elm Street* with three small trunks, asking for a private room in which to write. He paid for the room in advance. After a few days, the landlord became suspicious over Mr. Jones’s apparent anxiety, especially concerning the contents of his trunks. When one of the trunks disappeared, Mr. Bangs contacted the police. The police—seemingly without probable cause or a warrant—picked the locks of the two remaining trunks and found bank notes they could positively identify as being from the City Bank robbery.

When Mr. Jones returned to the boarding house, he was promptly arrested. The robber was soon discovered to be Edward Smith, who lived on Division Street with his wife and two children and ran a shoe store. He was well-known to police, having been arrested for a store robbery in Brooklyn but not convicted due to lack of evidence. Stories soon began to swirl of other robberies Smith was allegedly connected to, including the attempted theft of cash from the steamer Chancellor Livingston and a daring mail coach heist in England.

Of the $245, 000, only about $176,000 was recovered from Smith. The bank soon began advertising for people to keep an eye out for the other bank notes (and the Spanish doubloons). One apparent accomplice was arrested in Philadelphia in April when some of the missing bank notes were identified on his person. But it is unclear if the remainder of the money was ever recovered or if that man was, indeed, part of the robbery.

A jury found Edward Smith guilty in a one-day trial (that one day included jury selection, testimony, and deliberations) and he was sentenced to five years hard labor in Sing-Sing prison.

* Elm Street is now Lafayette Street.


Read more about the history of Wall Street in

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Alexander Graham Bell and the St. Denis Hotel

On March 7, 1876, the US Patent Office granted Alexander Graham Bell the patent for his brand-new telephone or "harmonic telegraph." Bell was in a race to secure a patent with Elisha Gray, who'd essentially invented the same device; there's been controversy ever since as to which person should get credit. At least one reason Bell received the patent is that his lawyer showed up at the patent office first.

Some in Bell's corner argue that the patent itself is less important than the fact that he was the first to get a telephone to actually work, on March 10, 1876, when Bell was able to summon his assistant by saying "Watson, come here" into a working phone.

It was also Bell who successfully demonstrated the telephone was more than just a novelty. Of particular importance was his demonstration at the St. Denis Hotel in Greenwich Village in early May 1877 was instrumental in getting the technology adopted.

The St. Denis was opened in 1853, just across from Grace Church. Both buildings had been designed by James Renwick, who would later go on to build St. Patrick's Cathedral. (James wrote a story about Renwick's buildings in the Village for The New York Post, which you can read at

Billed as the "most centrally located hotel in the city," the St. Denis was within walking distance of most of New York's prime theaters, restaurants, and department stores, many of which lined Broadway south of Union Square. The hotel quickly developed a celebrity clientele, including first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who stayed there during one of her frequent trips to the city. Ulysses S. Grant worked on his memoirs at the hotel and, when he was stuck with writer's block, his publisher, Mark Twain, moved in for three months to get him over the hump.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
Though [Alexander Graham Bell] had already patented the device and made public demonstrations of its efficacy—[including a call from Boston to] Providence, Rhode Island, 43 miles away—he hadn’t yet found a market for it. At the St. Denis a crowd of about 50 filled the drawing room on the second floor where Bell made telephone calls to the A and P Telegraph office in Brooklyn, using wire strung across the not-yet-completed Brooklyn Bridge. In the audience were potential financial backers, such as Cyrus Field, the president of the company that 11 years earlier had successfully laid the first transatlantic telegraph cable. 
At least one observer at the St. Denis, telegraph pioneer Walter P. Phillips, derided the invention as “a toy, if not an absolute humbug.” But it is clear that others were impressed. Later that year, the first telephone was installed—connecting J.H. Haigh’s home on John Street to his factory in Brooklyn. By 1878, the first telephone directory was published: it contained 252 listings: 235 businesses and 17 people who had telephones installed at home.
Alas, the St. Denis hotel -- converted into an office building in the early part of the 20th century -- is now slated for demolition, so that it can be replaced with a 12-story glass tower.

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Read more about Bell and the St. Denis in

Thursday, February 28, 2019

John Tyler, Julia Gardiner, and the "Awful Explosion" on the Princeton

One of the most complicated legacies in presidential history is that of John Tyler, our tenth president. Elected to the vice presidency in 1840, he became president in April 1841, when President William Henry Harrison died a mere month into his term.

While the 12th Amendment had modified the Constitution so that presidents and vice presidents would run together on one ticket, the document had never fully laid out the duties of the vice president or the rules of succession.

(Amazingly, those rules would not be codified until the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967.)

So, when Harrison died, Tyler assumed the presidency -- against the wishes of just about everyone in Washington, including his own party, the Whigs, who kicked him out. He was pejoratively known as "His Accidency" instead of "His Excellency" and most politically minded Americans probably thought he'd serve as lame duck throughout his entire term.

Tyler, meanwhile, was dealing with personal tragedy. In September 1842, his wife Letitia died in the White House of a stroke, and his daughter-in-law, actress Priscilla Cooper Tyler, took on the role of White House hostess and de facto First Lady.

Tyler, then age 52, soon began wooing Julia Gardiner -- age 22 -- the daughter of David Gardiner, a wealthy New York attorney and scion of the famous Gardiner family of Long Island.

As we write in Inside the Apple, Julia was
a rebellious and bored young woman. In 1840, she appeared in a handbill advertisement for Bogert & Mecamley, a dry goods store. Julia stands clutching a handbag that is actually a sign:

I’ll purchase at Bogert & Mecamley’s, number 86 Ninth Avenue. Their goods are beautiful and astonishingly cheap. 

Julia’s family was horrified. Not only was she shilling for a middle-class department store while wearing a gaudy frock, she was doing it on the arm of a man who was not a male relative. Of all the social faux pas in Victorian New York, the unchaperoned female was high on the list. 
Julia was immediately sent to Europe to learn her social graces. Soon upon her return, she met President Tyler—who was less than five months a widower—and the two began an oblique romance. Within a few weeks, he had proposed to her. Julia demurred [ed: or, more likely, her parents did], but Tyler was not easily dissuaded. In February 1844, Tyler invited Julia and her father, David, to see the first demonstration of the U.S. Navy’s new twelve-inch gun, the “Peacemaker.”
The "Peacemaker" and the ship that bore it, the Princeton, were the brainchild of John Ericsson, the inventor of the screw propeller who would also go on to also design the ironclad warship. The "Peacemaker" was designed to give the US Navy an edge against older, bigger, and better trained fleets. Tyler invited a host of dignitaries for the Princeton's inaugural run up the Potomac, including David Gardiner and Julia. Perhaps Tyler thought that including the Gardiners in what was supposed to be the biggest triumph of his presidency would bring Julia's father around.

But what started as a joyful and patriotic day ended, in the words of one participant in "scenes of death, and disaster, of lamentation and unutterable woe" when the "Peacemaker"exploded in the breech.

Tyler was on his way topside from having been with Julia below deck when the accident happened. Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Navy Secretary Thomas W. Gilmer were killed instantly, as was David Gardiner. It was, by all accounts, a gruesome scene.

Four months later,
Julia and the President were married at a secret ceremony at the Church of the Ascension, near the Gardiners’ New York City residence on Lafayette Place. Tyler was loath to tell his children about the wedding. His eldest daughter, Mary, was five years older than Julia, who was 24—and the President was himself only nine years older than Julia’s mother. 
However, word soon spread of the nuptials—not least because Julia took Washington by storm, spending her nine months as First Lady in a whirl of social engagements and state functions. She established new, more rigid protocols (including the tradition that “Hail to the Chief” be played every time the President made an appearance) and catapulted herself into a lifetime career as Former First Lady Julia Tyler.
Julia and John Tyler left the White House in 1845, and she bore him numerous children. Amazingly their son Lyon Gardiner Tyler (born 1853) still has two living sons -- which means that President John Tyler, who was born in 1790, George Washington's first full year in office, has grandchildren that are still alive.


and don't forget our first book with the story of John and Julia Tyler

Thursday, February 14, 2019

James K. Polk and Early Presidential Portraits

On February 14, 1849 -- 170 years ago today -- President James K. Polk sat down in the photography studio of Mathew Brady in New York City to have his portrait taken. This photo is the earliest surviving photograph of a president taken while he was in office. Though there's a rumor that a daguerreotype of William Henry Harrison was shot during his one month in office in 1841, that photo has never been found.

Brady's studio at the time was at the corner of Broadway and Fulton streets in the Financial District and is now gone, as is Brady's famous uptown studio, where he took the photo of Abraham Lincoln (below). The only Brady studio building still standing is in Tribeca at 359 Broadway.

While Polk may have been the first president to be photographed while in office, he was not the first to sit for his portrait. That honor goes to John Quincy Adams, a daguerreotype of whom was shot in March 1843. At the time, Adams was serving in Congress; he was actually a representative from Massachusetts for nearly seventeen years after he left the presidency, overlapping briefly with Lincoln during that future president's one term in Congress.

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Read more about Mathew Brady and Abraham Lincoln in New York
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers


and don't forget our first book

Thursday, February 7, 2019


On February 7, 1964 -- fifty-five years ago today -- four lads from Liverpool landed at JFK airport and took America by storm.

Coming just ten weeks after President Kennedy's assassination (and two months after Idlewild Airport's renaming in honor of the slain president), the Beatles arrival that day served for many as a tonic to the ills of the world.

The group's first British albums, Please Please Me and With the Beatles had been released in rapid succession in 1963, keeping the group at the top of the British charts for a remarkable 51 straight weeks. In America, it had taken a few months for Beatlemania to catch fire, but once it did in early 1964, the group became an unstoppable force. When they landed at JFK on February 7, 1964, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had just reached the top of the Billboard charts and a crowd of 3,000 screaming fans greeted them. (The fact that 3,000 was considered a crowd seems almost quaint.)

Two days later, on February 9, the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Like Elvis's appearance before them, it was a crucial moment in introducing the band to a larger audience and a record 73 million people tuned in to watch them perform "All My Loving," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," "I Saw Her Standing There," and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

73 million people equaled about 40% of the TV audience that night. What were the others watching instead? Up against Ed Sullivan that night were The Wonderful World of Disney, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (starring a 12-year-old Kurt Russell), Imogene Coca in Grindl, and Arrest and Trial, the forerunner to Law and Order.

Three Beatles -- George Harrison was nursing a sore throat -- commandeer a carriage in Central Park for a publicity shoot

On February 11, the band played its first U.S. concert at the Coliseum in Washington, D.C., then returned to New York for two shows at Carnegie Hall. (The shows ran a mere 35 minutes each!) The group appeared for a second time on Ed Sullivan on February 16, playing live via satellite from a hotel in Miami where they had retreated for a vacation Though they were only in the States for less three weeks, the trip had a lasting impact, unleashing the "British Invasion" and forever changing the face of pop music.


and don't forget our first book

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