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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.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City

Yesterday, James had a piece in CURBED, the online real estate and architecture journal, about Frank Lloyd Wright's least-understood concept, "Broadacre City," a type of suburban Utopia he first envisioned in the 1930s.

As James writes in the story:
If you read enough about Frank Lloyd Wright, a standard narrative begins to emerge: There’s early Wright, where the brash young architect breaks from his Chicago School mentors to create the Prairie style and design such early icons as the Robie House in Chicago and Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. Then there’s late Wright, the mature genius who brought us Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum. In between, there’s a fallow period of personal scandal, a slowdown in commissions, and oddball musings, such as his 1932 plan for a utopian, libertarian community he called Broadacre City.

Though Wright remains America’s most famous architect, his Broadacre theories are often relegated to a footnote of his career; indeed, many biographies don’t mention them at all. But what if the Broadacre plan—a sweeping, individualized American “anti-city” that fused Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian ideals into a seamless, Wright-designed, suburban landscape—was, in fact, the architect’s most enduring idea?

(And read more about the architect's famous Guggenheim Museum commission at

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Ode to Greater New York

One of the many gems in the digital collections of the New York Public Library is this piece of sheet music for an ode to be "sung by a chorus of 2,000 voices in the City Hall Plaza, New Year's Eve" in 1897.

That night was the last that New York City's territory consisted of Manhattan and a slim portion of the Bronx. The next morning, January 1, 1898, the city would officially consolidate into the five boroughs, with Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, and the rest of the Bronx coming into the fold.

The song begins, "Hail thee city, born to-day! / Commercial monarch by the sea," which underlines immediately the reason why the city was expanding. As New York was beginning to see its commercial status erode to cities like Chicago (then second most populous in the country), the unification of Brooklyn and Manhattan was seen as a good way to ensure the city's enduring mercantile prowess. The song's final line -- "When sister cities wed with thee / Joined in power and history" -- is a nod to Brooklyn, which Manhattan saw as having a parallel history and a natural extension of New York's territory.

Brooklynites didn't see it that way. As we write in Footprints in New York:
On December 31, 1897, an electric trolley car wended its way across the span of the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time. Employees of the trolley company made last-minute adjustments to the electric cabling and then, a few minutes before midnight, the Columbia and the Amphion—two “sumptuous” trolley cars (in the words of the New York Times)—ferried a delegation of Brooklyn dignitaries to Manhattan to celebrate New Year’s Eve. When the trolleys took them home again at the end of the party, their city was gone. At the stroke of midnight, Brooklyn had ceased to exist as an independent entity. It was now just one of five boroughs. 
On the Manhattan side, a celebration thrown by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal was hampered by rain that turned to snow by midnight; still, an estimated 100,000 people came out to cheer the beginning of the new city. 
In Brooklyn, things were much more somber. Mayor Frederick Wurster welcomed Seth Low and other former mayors for an “observance” at Brooklyn City Hall. Though the reception was held for pro-consolidation advocates, it can’t have been a cheery occasion. The official poem written for the festivities ends its first stanza with “You, with me, must die.”
Just a few years after five-borough consolidation, New Year's Eve celebrations moved from City Hall Plaza up to the newly minted Times Square. You can read all about the Times Tower and the annual ball drop in one of our most popular blog posts here.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Happy Birthday to the Lincoln Tunnel

This postcard view of the New Jersey approach to the Lincoln Tunnel isn't, perhaps, the most scenic view in the world, but serves as a good reminder how exciting the opening of the tunnel was back on December 22, 1937 -- seventy-nine years ago today.

The first person to drive through was Omero Catan. Known as "Mister First," Catan's lifelong obsession was to be the first person to experience new modes of transit, whether that was being the first person to buy a token for the IND subway expansion, the first to drive on the New Jersey turnpike, or the first to travel under the Hudson in the Lincoln Tunnel. In all, Catan was first at over 520 opening-day events.

(Note that while the famed Lincoln Highway begins in Times Square, the Lincoln Tunnel -- also named for president Abraham Lincoln -- isn't part of the route. Originally, travelers had to take a ferry to Weehawken from Manhattan to use the highway; later, the Holland Tunnel became part of the route.)

Originally consisting of just two lanes -- one in each direction -- the tunnel was gradually expanded to its present width of six lanes by the late 1950s. Approximately 109,000 vehicles pass through each day.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Happy 225th Birthday to the Bill of Rights

New York was only the capital of the United States for a brief time, but many important things happened during the city's tenure as the seat of government. Perhaps none is more central to our daily lives than the passage of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights [warning: PDF], primarily written by future president James Madison, was designed to address what were seen as deficiencies in the Constitution, especially among anti-Federalists, who thought the original document ceded too much power to the federal government and didn't do enough to protect individual rights.

The House of Representatives, meeting in Federal Hall on Wall Street (pictured above), actually voted in favor of 17 amendments. Once the laws reached the Senate, they were combined and rewritten into 12 amendments, which then passed to the states for ratification. On December 15, 1791 -- 225 years ago today -- Virginia became the final state to agree to ten of those twelve amendments, putting the Bill of Rights into effect.

What became of the other two amendments passed along to the states?

One, which proposed a system for ensuring that the House of Representatives was never too small -- and that bolstered the power of less populous states -- couldn't garner the votes for passage.

The other amendment, regarding congressional pay raises -- first ratified by Maryland in 1789 -- was finally approved in 1992 and became the 27th Amendment, 201 years after the rest of the Bill of Rights became the law of the land.

Meanwhile, by the time the Bill of Rights had been ratified, Federal Hall was no long the seat of government. A deal between Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton at Jefferson's home on Maiden Lane moved the capital to Philadelphia in 1790 and, ultimately, to Washington DC. The Federal Hall pictured at the top was torn down in 1812 and today's Federal Hall National Memorial (originally the US Custom House, shown here under a blanket of snow during the blizzard of 1888) went up in 1842.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Postcard Thursday: USS Arizona

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the USS Arizona, which now forms the centerpiece of the memorial on Oahu.

Like many naval vessels of that era, the Arizona was manufactured right here in New York City. Here's a photo of its maiden voyage from the Brooklyn Navy Yard on June 19, 1915. She was named for what was then the newest state in the union and was officially commissioned the following year.

The shot below shows her heading up the East River and was taken sometime in 1916. Note the recently completed Municipal Building (far right), the Woolworth Building, and just to the right of the Brooklyn Bridge, the spire of the Singer Building.

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Sunday, December 11, 2016 | 11am-1pm | $20 per person

Join us in early December for a walk through the heart of the Financial District. Instead of focusing on a narrow period, as we've done on some of our previous walks, this will be an architecture-heavy look at the city's history from its Dutch beginnings through to the new residential skyscrapers that are rising today. (And, yes, Alexander Hamilton will make a cameo appearance.)

From the few remaining examples of the English-colonial period to Beaux-Arts extravagance, this tour has something for everything, and the rich architectural details will be great for photographers, so bring a camera!

Only $20 per person
Please RSVP by emailing WALKNYC@GMAIL.COM with
your name
the number in your party, and
a cell number where you can be reached that day if there's a problem.

We'll send out details of where to meet to everyone who reserves.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Happy Birthday, LGA

Sometimes, there's a method to postponing Postcard Thursday by a day. (At least that's the story to which we are sticking.) For example, today -- December 2 -- is the birthday of New York City's oldest commercial airport, LaGuardia, which opened on this date in 1939.

The famous story is that in 1934, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was flying back from Pittsburgh but refused to disembark from his plane in New Jersey since his ticket read "New York." The airline, TWA, agreed to fly him to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn instead. The whole thing was a publicity stunt, as reporters were waiting in Brooklyn to hear the mayor complain that New York City was losing out by not having a major commercial airport.

Five years later, La Guardia got his wish when the New York Municipal Airport, opened in Flushing, Queens. Almost immediately, the term "La Guardia Field," was attached to the airport, and by 1947 the name was officially attached. Somewhere along the line the space between "La" and "Guardia" was dropped.

The oldest building at the airport is the Marine Air Terminal, a wonderful piece of a WPA-era architecture and well worth a look if you have time to kill when you are next leaving the city.

LGA is currently undergoing a massive renovation, scheduled to be finished by 2021.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Postcard Thursday: Happy Thanksgiving

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving postcards aren't much of a thing anymore, but in the early decades of the 20th century, there were a ton of slightly bizarre holiday cards to choose from, such as the Pilgrim child above (evidently that shadow behind him is Plymouth Rock), the characters from Longfellow's "Courtship of Miles Standish" (below) depicted as toddlers, or the very patriotic young man at the bottom of this post presumably carting his dinner off to slaughter.

But the Pilgrims are actually a rather late addition to our Thanksgiving holiday. James published a piece yesterday in the Guardian about Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who spearheaded the modern holiday. You can read it at:

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On a completely different note: If you are planning to sign up for our December 11 walking tour of Lower Manhattan, you should do so ASAP. The tour is very close to selling out and reservations will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis.

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ALSO: Happy Evacuation Day!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

December 11 Walking Tour: 400 Years of NYC Downtown


Sunday, December 11, 2016 | 11am-1pm
$20 per person

Join us in early December for a walk through the heart of the Financial District. Instead of focusing on a narrow period, as we've done on some of our previous walks, this will be an architecture-heavy look at the city's history from its Dutch beginnings through to the new residential skyscrapers that are rising today. (And, yes, Alexander Hamilton will make a cameo appearance.)

From the few remaining examples of the English-colonial period to Beaux-Arts extravagance, this tour has something for everything, and the rich architectural details will be great for photographers, so bring a camera!

Only $20 per person

Please RSVP by emailing WALKNYC@GMAIL.COM with
  • your name
  • the number in your party, and
  • a cell number where you can be reached that day if there's a problem.
We'll send out details of where to meet to everyone who reserves.

Looking forward to seeing you on December 11!

Best wishes,
Michelle and James Nevius

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