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

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Friday, October 31, 2008

The Ticker Tape Parade

With so many anniversaries this week (the opening of the first subway; the Great Crash of 1929), it was easy to overlook that the city’s most famous statue—Frederic August Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the World, aka the Statue of Libertyturned 122 years old on October 28.

The official grand opening 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.

More about ticker tape parades—including what was at the time the biggest ever held for the Apollo astronauts in 1969—can be found in Inside the Apple, which is available for pre-order now.

[Photo by StormyDog on flickr.]

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

August Belmont's Private Subway Car

October 27 marks the 104th anniversary of the opening of New York’s first subway, the IRT. On that day, Mayor George “Max” McClellan took hold of the controls at the City Hall station and enjoyed it so much that he kept driving all the way to Broadway and 103rd Street, where the motorman was finally allowed to take over.*

(When the city celebrated the subway’s centennial in 2004, we thought it would have been great for Mayor Bloomberg to reenact McClellan’s joyride, but—alas—no such luck.)

The IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit Company) was created in 1900 to build and operate the first subway and its principal financier was August Belmont, better known today for building Belmont Park, the home of the Belmont Stakes. Part of the IRT’s first complement of rolling stock was a private car for Belmont, named the Mineola (after the family seat on Long Island).

As New York Times columnist Meyer Berger noted in Meyer Berger’s New York, the Mineola was decked out with

Philippine mahogany…, mulberry silk drapes, knee-deep carpeting, sliding leatherette curtains, a kitchenette with kerosene stove and old-fashioned icebox, special subway-pattern china and glassware, overstuffed reclining couch, swivel chair and roll-top desk.
Talk about commuting in style. While it is certain the Belmont used the car for entertaining and showing off the IRT to guests, stories have also persisted for years that the Mineola would whisk Belmont and his guests from a siding under the Belmont Hotel on 42nd Street all the way out to Belmont Park. In theory, this would have been possible (switching from IRT to LIRR tracks at Atlantic Avenue), but there is no evidence that the Mineola ever made that journey.

After Belmont’s death, the car was eventually sold for scrap. However, it never quite managed to end up on the junk heap and in 1973 was acquired by the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven, Connecticut, where it remains to this day.

You can read more about Belmont and the building of the IRT in Inside the Apple.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Free Admission to the Andrew Carnegie Mansion

In celebration of National Design week, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design museum is free from October 19 to 25.

The museum is housed in the former mansion of steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Built by Cook, Babb & Willard from 1899 to 1901, the home featured 64 rooms including vast public rooms, a conservatory, one of the first passenger elevators in a private home, and a very early version of central air conditioning.

Today, it is one of only two full-block mansions on Fifth Avenue left from the Gilded Age (the other is the former home of Carnegie's crony Henry Clay Frick). It is well worth a visit both for its architecture and to see the collections of its current tenant, the Cooper-Hewitt, which is the Smithsonian's National Design Museum.

Much more about Carnegie and his mansion can be found in Inside the Apple.

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Also in the news: a nice story in the October 20 issue of the New York Observer about the house on West 11th Street that was blown up by the Weather Underground, who have been in the news so much lately vis a vis Bill Ayers and Barack Obama.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Panic of 1907

There was an excellent article in the New York Times about the closed-door meeting in Washington where Treasuty Secretary Henry Paulson dictated the terms of the government's $250 billion investment in 9 large U.S. banks. Seems that Paulson got them all in the room and told them they weren't leaving until they'd signed the one-page agreement he had drafted.

This brought to mind a famous story about the Panic of 1907--at the time one of the most severe economic panics the nation had ever seen. At that time it wasn't the government that Wall Street turned to for a bailout, it was J. Pierpont Morgan, whose famous "House of Morgan" stood opposite the New York Stock Exchange. (The building, still there, is now part of a condo development.)

When the Knickerbocker Trust Company failed in October 1907, Morgan was able to prop up the floundering stock exchange by getting banks to promise $25 million dollars to infuse the market with liquidity. However, a number of other small banks and trusts were on the verge of collapse and Morgan knew there'd be more market uncertainty without a stronger course of action. On the night of November 2, 1907, he invited the leaders of the city's big banks to his new library. Once there, Morgan locked them inside and wouldn't let them go until 5:00 a.m. the next morning having secured an additional $25 million in investment capital to bolster the failing trust companies.

Morgan, who died six years later, was one of America's largest collectors of rare books and fine art. The library--the original section of which was designed by noted Beaux-Arts architect Charles Follen McKim--is now the Morgan Library & Museum, one of New York's finest small museums.

More information about Morgan, his library, and the Panic of 1907 can be found in Inside the Apple. Pre-order you copy today!

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Christopher Columbus in New York City

Monday, October 14, marks the 74th year that Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of America has been celebrated as a national holiday. In New York City, celebrations date back to at least 1792, the 300th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, but didn't really start in earnest until the first waves of Italian immigrants began arriving in the years around the Civil War.

In 1892, the 400th anniversary, New York City went all out in its Columbus celebrations. Three separate statues were planned for Central Park and--since there was already one in the park, donated by a private individual--this would have meant a total of four Columbus monuments in the park alone. In the end, we only have two Columbus commemorations: one in the middle of Columbus Circle (donated by the Italian-American community) and one on the Mall, put up under the auspices of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B).

Each is worth a visit. The Italian Columbus stands on a 70-foot pillar in the midst of the traffic circle where 59th Street intersects Broadway and Central Park West. It is sculpted of marble by Gaetano Russo and the base is inset with bas relief images of Columbus' first landing.

To reach the other Columbus, enter the park here and walk north on the West Drive (the ring road) to Tavern on the Green/Sheep Meadow. Turn right and walk east along the bottom of Sheep Meadow; when you get to the other side, follow the path as it curves to the left (don't re-cross the ring road) and you'll get to base of the park's formal promenade, known as the Mall. There you'll find the other Columbus. 

This work, often known as "the Spanish Columbus," is by Jeronimo Sunol, a Spanish artist who had already created a similar sculpture in Barcelona. The statue's champion was James Grant Wilson, a Civil War veteran, New York City historian, Central Park lover, and all-around civic-minded citizen. Through the NYG&B, Wilson raised the funds to place this statue in the park, probably as a counterbalance to the Italian piece in Columbus Circle. With so many Italians immigrating to the United States in the late 19th century, it is likely that the subtext of any so-called "Spanish Columbus" was that it was, in fact, a "non-Italian Columbus."

Meanwhile, the Spanish government was interested in commemorating the explorer with its own statue, but plans fell through and it was never built.

Lastly, there was the privately donated piece. It was sculpted by Emma Stebbins--best known for the park's Angel of the Waters--and ended up living for years in a tavern that once stood in the park near the 102nd Street transverse. Stebbins' Columbus later traveled down to Columbus Park in Chinatown and now stands in Cadman Plaza in front of the Brooklyn Supreme Court building. (To visit, take the 2, 3, 4, or 5 subway to Borough Hall. The Columbus Statue is directly in front of the main Supreme Court entrance.)

Much more about Columbus and his appearances in NYC history, art, and architecture can be found in Inside the Apple.

Happy Columbus Day!

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

New York's Lost Ballparks

With the end of the season for both the New York Yankees and the Mets, both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium are coming down.

This is, of course, not the first time New York has lost classic stadiums. On tours of Harlem and Brooklyn Heights, baseball fans often ask us about the fate of Ebbets Field--home of the Brooklyn Dodgers--and the Polo Grounds, once home to the baseball's Giants and Yankees as well as football's Giants and Jets.

As the name suggest, the Polo Grounds were originally built for polo matches, though other sports were played there too. The original stadium was on 110th Street, just north of Central Park and it was the first home of the New York Gothams, who soon changed their name to the Giants. In the 1890s, the Giants moved to a new stadium on Coogan's Bluff at the terminus of the 9th Avenue Elevated Railroad and a year later into the stadium next door that had once belonged to the short-lived rival Players' League. Expanded after a fire in 1911, it was this stadium that remained the Polo Grounds until 1964.

The Polo Grounds was home to one of baseball's most famous games; on October 3, 1951, the Giants won the National League pennant with Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World," a home run off the Brooklyn Dodgers' Ralph Branca, launching them into the World Series (which they subsequently lost to the Yankees).

The Yankees played at the Polo Grounds from 1913 to 1922 and it was home to the NFL Giants from 1925 to 1955. The New York Jets and the New York Mets were the stadium's last occupants. Both played there until Shea Stadium opened in 1964. The Polo Grounds were demolished that year and a public housing project built in there place. A sign hangs on the wall of one of the buildings in the housing project where home plate once stood.

Ebbets Field suffered as similar fate. The stadium was built in the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn in 1913 to be home to the Brooklyn Dodgers, then owned by Charles Ebbets. It was here Jackie Robinson broke the color line when he joined the team in 1947.

However, in the 1950s the team's owner, Walter O'Malley, began putting intense pressure on the city to build the ball club a new, improved stadium. When New York balked at O'Malley's demands, the Dodgers followed through on what many had considered an empty threat and moved the team to Los Angeles in 1957. That same year, the Giants left the Polo Grounds for San Francisco, suddenly taking New York from being a city of three world-class baseball teams to a city with just the Yankees. Many in Brooklyn have never forgiven O'Malley--or the team--for their desertion.

In 1960, Ebbets Field was demolished and, like the Polo Grounds, was replaced by public housing. The housing project, originally called the Ebbets Field Houses, was renamed the Jackie Robinson Apartments in 1970s.

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