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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Brian Lehrer Show

Tomorrow, June 26, we will be appearing on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC radio to talk about Inside the Apple. You can find out all the details about the show -- and download a podcast if you aren't in the NYC listening area -- at We are slated to be on at 11:40 a.m.

(You can also stream the show live via the website.)

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Walking Tour of Stanford White's New York

So often when we commemorate anniversaries, it is of something tragic or terrible – and this week is no exception. Tomorrow, June 25, marks the 103rd anniversary of the murder of architect Stanford White at the theater at Madison Square Garden. White was killed by his ex-girlfriend’s husband, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw.

(If you read press coverage from 1906, it always refers to Thaw as being from Pittsburgh – as if that explained everything somehow.)

Instead of rehashing the murder itself (which you can read all about in Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City), we thought this week we’d provide a walking tour of some of White’s significant New York buildings. He was one of the greatest Beaux Arts architects and his firm, McKim, Mead & White, is responsible for much of the Neoclassical look of late 19th- and early 20th-century New York.

The tour can be found at (note: PDF file!)

You’ll notice that some stops refer to chapter numbers; these are chapters in Inside the Apple where we tell the story of a particular Stanford White building in greater depth.

So print out the tour, grab a copy of Inside the Apple, and go explore the Gilded Age!

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

FREE walking tour of Financial District Architecture

UPDATE: Our next free tour of the Financial District will be on Sunday, August 16, at 5:00 p.m. Follow this link for more information.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

at 5:00PM

A Walking Tour of Financial District architecture

Sponsored by Borders at 100 Broadway.


Join us for a free walking tour of the architecture of the Financial District. Focusing on such well-known buildings as Trinity Church and the New York Stock Exchange as well as often-overlooked gems like the Trinity Building and the old U.S. Custom House on Wall Street, the tour will cover 400 years of New York's history in just a few significant blocks.

The tour will begin and end at the Borders at 100 Broadway, which is housed in the old American Surety Building, one of the most significant early skyscrapers on Lower Broadway. Following the one-hour tour, the authors will answers questions and sign copies of
Inside the Apple.

No RSVP is necessary, but please arrive at Borders a few minutes early as we plan to start promptly at 5:00PM.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

The General Slocum disaster

Today (June 15, 2009) marks the 105th anniversary of the sinking of the General Slocum, a steamship that had been hired by St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kleindeutschland ("Little Germany") to take its parishioners on their annual Sunday School picnic.

(Though it was a Sunday School outing, it did not take place on a Sunday, as is sometimes erroneously reported; June 15th was a Wednesday.)

The...boat carried families from just about every block of the area surrounding Tompkins Square Park, the heart of the German neighborhood. The boat left from the pier at East Third Street around 9:30 in the morning and trouble developed almost immediately. A spark, probably from a stove, set the stern on fire; as the ship steamed up the East River, observers on either bank could see smoke and flames billowing from the vessel. Captain William Van Shaick could have headed for Manhattan, the Bronx, or Queens. Instead, he decided to make for North Brother Island, which lies in the East River near the entrance to the Long Island Sound. Captain Van Schaick, who survived the tragedy, later said that he’d hoped in doing this to keep the fire from spreading, but in fact he was piloting into a steady wind and the blaze quickly got out of control, enveloping the ship’s three decks, which then collapsed. Van Schaick may have also picked North Brother Island because of the hospital there (where Typhoid Mary would later spend the last two decades of her life). However, by the time the ship ran aground, the hospital staff could do little to help: most of the passengers had already drowned or burned to death.

Compounding the tragedy was the ship’s utter disregard for safety standards. Life preservers that were shoddily constructed in the first place had not been replaced in years. Mothers, hoping to save their children, bundled them into life preservers and threw them over the side only to watch them drown as the defective floatation devices became instantly water-logged and sank. The ship’s lifeboats could not be detached from the vessel and the crew had no instruction on how to handle a fire. Indeed, one of the only things Captain Van Schaik was ever punished for was lack of safety preparedness. (The jury refused to find him guilty of manslaughter.)

The official death toll stands at 1,021 though many--including Ed O'Donnell in Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum--calculate that the loss of life was even higher.

A small monument, which looks like a Greek funeral stele, stands in Tompkins Square Park to commemorate the children who lost their lives that day. But that is Kleindeutschland's only real marker to the event that changed that neighborhood--and New York--forever.

The event does make a few appearances in popular culture; perhaps most famously, it is mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses, which takes place entirely over the course of the next day, June 16, 1904. The sinking of the General Slocum is recreated in the film Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and William Powell (the latter who would go on to star in the Thin Man films) and it even inspired an unfinished classical piece by American composer Charles Ives.

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Much more about the General Slocum tragedy and New York's German community in the East Village can be found in Inside the Apple, including a walking tour of important German-American sites.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Statue of Liberty Crown Reopens July 4, 2009 -- Ticket Information

The National Park Service has announced the details for getting tickets to visit the crown of the Statue of Liberty, which has been off limits since just before the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. The crown will reopen July 4, 2009, and tickets go on sale this Saturday, June 13, at 10:00 a.m. You can buy tickets up to one year in advance.

(While it is true that all access to the crown was cut off after 9/11, the Park Service had, in fact, been limiting visitors throughout the summer of 2001 in an attempt to control crowds and preserve the statue's structural integrity.)

Visitors will be allowed up in groups of 10, guided by a park ranger. The climb is 354 steps and, as the press release points out, the statue's interior can be 20 degrees hotter than the ambient outdoor air temperature. No word yet on how long you'll be allowed to linger at the crown once you're up there.

For all the details, visit

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The Statue of Liberty -- and Ellis Island, which is served by the same ferry -- are both discussed in detail in Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City. It's available at most major retailers and online.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Another New York First: The Ice Cream Shop

With the unofficial start of summer behind us and the solstice less than two weeks away, signs of the season are all around us. In New York, that means the ice cream wars are heating up, whether it's dueling ice cream trucks in Queens or the sudden proliferation of mobile gourmet desserts across the city. (We'll forget about Pinkberry and its ilk for now.)

Today, June 8, marks what is considered commercial ice cream's birthday in America; 223 years ago today, a "Mister Hall" (no first name given) advertised the first ice cream shop in New York. It was located at 76 Chatham Street, near City Hall. (Chatham Street--originally named for William Pitt, Earl of Chatham--is today called Park Row; the ice cream shop would have stood roughly where Pace University now stands. New York also has a Pitt Street and a Chatham Square named for the famed British politician.)

Little is known of Mister Hall or his ice cream shop. Evidently, it was a favorite of George Washington during the 15 months that the United States capitol was located on Wall Street. Washington is said to have run up a bill of $200. Estimating conservatively that a serving of high-quality ice cream cost as much a 5 cents, that would be 4,000 servings -- worth $14,000 today at the Van Leeuwen ice cream truck. (And if a serving cost as little as a penny, that would be 20,000 servings--today $70,000--of ice cream!)

Chatham Street remained an ice cream haven for many years. In the 1850s, the New York Times reported that vendors hawked 3-cent ice cream along the street:

Every one of them, from early morning to late evening, is surrounded by a crowd of customers. The delicious and democratic compound is served out in a wine glass to each, and each disposes of it as is his pleasure, with the aid of a pewter spoon, or with the more primitive implement for securing palatal pleasures, the tongue. The majority of the patrons of the cheap cream sellers are little ones. But yesterday we saw a new bride...stop and enjoy half the proceeds of her groom's six-penny investment.

By the 1880s, one of the city's leading ice cream manufacturers, J.M. Horton, was located on Chatham Street. The book New York's Leading Industries marveled that their freezers could "congeal forty quarts of ice cream solid in twenty minutes!"

Today, the most common ice cream sighting in the area is a ubiquitous Mister Softee truck. In the summer of 1978, a Mister Softee truck just south of Park Row, at the corner of Fulton and Nassau streets, exploded, injuring 130 people. At first the NYPD suspected a bomb, but it was later determined that the truck's auxiliary gas tank had exploded.

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Our new book, Inside the Apple, has a great, self-guided walking tour of the City Hall area that examines both well-known and forgotten historic site in the vicinity of Park Row. It's a nice stroll to do on a summer evening with an ice cream cone in hand. Visit our website to find out more about the book or purchase it online today.

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In other news, we'll be appearing on WCBS AM 880 this Tuesday, June 9, at 12:45 p.m. to talk about the book; if you are in the area, listen in, or stream it online.

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Leake and Watts Orphan House, Morningside Heights

The oldest building in Morningside Heights stands on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Opened in 1843, this handsome Greek Revival temple designed by Ithiel Town has a strange history. 

One hundred eighty-two years ago today--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.

The only other major institution in the neighborhood was the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane, which stood where the main campus of Columbia University now stands.

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.

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A much more detailed consideration of the Leake and Watts Orphan House and the early history of Morningside Heights can be found in Inside the Apple, available at bookstores everywhere or online.

A couple of weeks ago, we gave a tour of Morningide Heights (including Leake and Watts) for a wonderful group from openhousenewyork. Photos from the tour--including a great shot of the St. John the Divine's stunning white peacock--are online at

Our next tour, of Financial District architecture, is on Sunday, June 21, at 5:00PM -- and it's free! For more information, see our tours page.

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