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Friday, August 28, 2009

Tavern on the Green to Get New Management

New York's Department of Parks has announced that next year Dean J. Poll, who currently holds the license to operate the Boathouse in Central Park, will also
take over the management of Tavern on the Green.

Among the changes Poll will implement is a thinning of the landscaping at the rear of the building to open up the vistas toward Sheep Meadow. What many people don't realize is that throughout most of the park's life, Sheep Meadow's official name was "the Green." Thus, when the restaurant first opened in 1934, it made sense that it was Tavern on the Green. (Perhaps techinally in should have been Tavern near the Green, since it is cut off from its namesake by the wide swath of the ring road.)

The Green came to be nicknamed Sheep Meadow because from 1864 to 1934 it housed a flock of pedigree Southdown and Dorset sheep. The removal of the sheep in 1934 is a story we tell in Inside the Apple. There are many plausible reasons why the sheep may have left, but certainly the main one is that the Parks Department (in the person of Robert Moses) had its eye on their sheepfold, an elaborate 1870 structure designed by Jacob Wrey Mould. As soon as the sheep were out, their barn was tranformed into Tavern on the Green.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

For Sale: The Narrowest House in New York

The press has been having a field day this week with the news that New York's narrowest house -- No. 75-1/2 Bedford Street -- is on the market for $2.75 million.

This is one of the most popular stops on our tours of Greenwich Village and appears in every guidebook. Unfortunately, most of those guidebooks also perpetuate the stories that Cary Grant and John and/or Lionel Barrymore stayed at the house, despite the fact that there's not a shred of evidence to connect either one to the home.

The entire property in that area was once owned by a coppersmith named Harmon Hendricks. His house, No. 77 Bedford, stands at the corner of Bedford and Commerce; built in 1799 it is the oldest home in the Village. Though No. 75-1/2 is often dated to 1873 (when it appears on tax rolls), it is stylistically older and may have been built as early as the 1850s.

The entire Henricks property was bought by the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1923, who converted a former brewery and factory space at 38 Commerce into the theater and planned to rent the rest of the property for profit. The Cherry Lane was founded by a group of refugees from the Provincetown Playhouse (which has been in the news a lot recently, too) including Edna St. Vincent Millay, who moved into the narrow house at 75-1/2 Bedford in 1924. It was Millay and her husband who remodeled the home, adding a skylight and the Dutch gabling on the front and back.

The other famous tenant to live in the house is anthrpologist Margaret Mead. What most press coverage leaves out is that Mead was living there with her sister and brother-in-law, the cartoonist William Steig (best known today, perhaps, as the creator of Shrek).

The New York Post has a feature on the house, including a photo essay in the post that doesn't necessarily reveal a lot about the interior, but does give a great view of the unique four-in-a-row burner stove. Over at Curbed, you can download the floorplan as you mull over whether or not $2.75 million is a good price for owning a conversation piece.

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We have three different tours that you can take to see the city's narrowest house.
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And speaking of CityListen -- they are having a great contest right now to give away a free pair of Kuru walking shoes. All the details are at But hurry -- the deadline for entries is September 6th.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

E. Ridley & Sons and the Murder of Edward Ridley

The Ridley building as it appeared in 1874; it was expanded in 1886, badly damaged in a fire in 1905 after the store had been sold, and truncated in 1931-32.

As guest blogger Bowery Boogie noted on Curbed yesterday, the pink Jodamo building on the Lower East Side at the corner of Orchard and Grand streets is for sale for a cool $25 million.

In the nineteenth century, the building was home to E. Ridley and Sons, one of the biggest department stores on the Lower East Side. Though Broadway in the area we today call SoHo was home to most of the city’s high-end shops, including A.T. Stewart’s “Marble Palace,” the stretch of Grand Street east of Broadway was an important retail district in its own right. Many of the shoppers came from Brooklyn or New Jersey on the Grand Street ferry and were then transported by horse-drawn street car.

Ridley’s was founded in 1849 by Edward Ridley Sr., an immigrant from Nottinghamshire, England, in a small building at 311-1/2 Grand Street. As the shop grew over the next two decades, Ridley began acquiring nearby lots and by 1883, he had built a store that encompassed the entire street-front on Grand from Orchard to Allen. According to some sources, it was the country’s largest retail store. (Today’s building is actually slightly truncated; when Allen Street was widened in 1931-32, a portion of the building was shorn off to accommodate the expanded road.)

For the Jewish immigrants who began to flood in the neighborhood in the 1880s, Ridley’s became a destination for young Jewish women to window shop – and from which to occasionally purchase, a sure sign of upward-mobility. Understanding the need to appeal to the area’s new clientele, Ridley’s began to promote itself more to local residents, including a big push in December equating Hanukkah with the gift-giving of Christmas. The shop was also one of the first to send out a catalogue so that buyers could peruse and purchase their goods from the comfort of home. (In 1964, a request was delivered to 311 Grand Street demanding to know why the Ridley's catalgoue had not been sent out "for some time." The writer clearly didn't know the store had gone out of business--in 1901!)

Edward Ridley died in 1883 and the store was taken over by his sons, Edward A. and Arthur Ridley. They continued in business until 1901, by which time they could no longer attract a enough clientele to fill the store. The building was sold and subdivided and both brothers went into real estate.

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Now, here’s where the story gets weird.

Edward A. Ridley was a bit of an eccentric, to say the least. He operated out of the subbasement of the old department store’s stables, a dungeon-like space 40 feet below street level. (The address is variously reported as 59, 61, and 63 Allen Street.)

As the New York Times wrote in 1931:

Ridley needed to wear rubber overshoes in his dank, cellar office and ultimately took to wearing them at all times. He allowed his beard to grow out, making him look like a wild-eyed Biblical prophet (“Whitmanesque” the Times called it), and he was rarely seen outside the office except going to and from his boarding house in New Jersey, always carrying an umbrella, rain or shine.

Then, in 1931, Ridley showed up for work one day to find his assistant, Herman Moench, dead. Actually, Ridley read his mail for about an hour, then bothered to go to the other side of the 8x15 foot office and found Moench lying next to his desk. At first the police assumed that Moench, who had worked for Ridley for an astonishing 51 years (he’d started at the store when he was 9 years old) had died of natural causes. Only when the body was examined by the coroner were two bullet wounds discovered. No one who worked at the garage that surrounded the office, including its managers, Harry and Lee Weinstein (who leased the space from Ridley) had seen or heard anything and with no leads, the case soon went cold.

Just a little over two years later, tragedy struck again. Ridley had hired Lee Weinstein from the garage to be his new assistant. On May 10, Lee’s brother Harry was unable to reach them in the office by telephone; he asked a garage employee to check on his brother and the man discovered that Lee Weinstein had been shot twice and Ridley beaten to death. The similarity of the two cases led the police to reopen the Herman Moench murder and ballistics tests immediately proved that the same gun had been used to kill both of Ridley’s assistants.

At first, the police assumed Ridley had been killed trying to protect Weinstein. However, when the old man’s will was found, it showed a $200,000 bequest to Weinstein, making the police wonder if Ridley had been the intended target and if Weinstein had been involved in both murders. The next day, the police discovered that Weinstein had been secretly married and living with his wife under an assumed name at a midtown hotel. As the investigation continued, the police found an unused bootlegging room in the Allen Street garage where Ridley kept his office, but decided that illegal alcohol had nothing to do with the murders. More promising was the discovery that Lee Weinstein had purchased a $2,050 car—while only making about $40 a week. It soon became clear that the will was a fake, signed by Ridley unwittingly and “witnessed” by two fellow conspirators—both of them accountants who helped keep Ridley’s books—who had hoped to split the $200,000. Further investigation revealed that Weinstein and his accomplices had already stolen over $200,000 from his employer.

But this discovery did little to shed the light on the killings and Weinstein's fellow thieves seemed to have nothing to do with the murders (and no connection to Herman Moench). The accountants were indicted for the theft and forgery but despite a $10,000 reward, no useful information came to the police. Ridley had owned many tenements on the Lower East Side and was said to be a miserly landlord, but none of his tenants was ever seriously looked at for the murders. To this day, the case remains one of the great unsolved crimes of the Lower East Side.

The building at 59-63 Allen Street still stands – and is still a parking garage. Does Ridley’s obscure basement office still exist, as well? If you park in the building, check it out and let us know!

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Our book, Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, has a great walking tour of this neighborhood. And while it doesn’t stop at Ridley’s, it does take you to a number of famous places on the Lower East Side, ending just a couple of blocks from the Ridley’s intersection.

The book is available from retailers across the country or online.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Apollo 11 Ticker Tape Parade

photo from the LIFE magazine archives on

Earlier this summer, the world celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which took place on July 20, 1969. Today marks another Apollo anniversary—the massive ticker tape parade for 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 researching Inside the Apple, we found that 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.

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For more on the origin of the ticker tape parade and a walking tour of the “Canyon of Heroes,” check out Inside the Apple. Or join us this Sunday for our free tour of that neighborhood, during which we’ll focus on the American Revolution.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

One Broadway

As we have written previously, we will be leading a free tour on Sunday, August 16, of Revolutionary War Lower Manhattan. (See for more details.)

One of the stops on the tour will be One Broadway, where the Washington Building -- later known as International Mercantile Marine -- now stands. But back in the 18th century, the base of Broadway was home to Archibald Kennedy, New York's receiver-general (i.e., the customs collector), and later the Earl of Cassilis.

Kennedy built his mansion ca. 1760; because Broadway was then much closer to the Hudson, Kennedy would have had a fine view out over the harbor and in the summer of 1776, he would have seen the massive British fleet assembling beyond Staten Island. Between June 29 and August 12, nearly 200 ships arrived, the largest naval fleet since antiquity. One observer, a soldier named Daniel McCurtin, wrote in his journal:
"[I] spied as I peeped out the Bay something resembling a wood of pine trees trimmed.... I declare I thought all of London was afloat."
During the war, Kennedy left the city and the house became George Washington's headquarters during the planning of the Battle of Brooklyn, which took place in late August 1776. When the British captured New York, the home -- which escaped the Great Fire of 1776 -- was used by the British army. After the Revolution, the house was rented by Isaac "King" Sears. A prominent member of the Sons of Liberty, Sears was was involved in the Stamp Act Protests in 1765 and the Battle of Golden Hill in 1770, a skirmish just north of Wall Street that some call the first bloodshed of the Revolution. Sears paid £500 a year, probably the highest rent in the city.

The house was later owned by John Watts, a successful merchant and founder of the Leake and Watts Orphan House in Morningside Heights.

In 1882, Kennedy's house (by then a boardinghouse) was demolished to make way for the Washington Building, which still occupies the site. When the Washington Building was erected, it had more office space than any building in New York.

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We will be talking more about One Broadway, George Washington, "King" Sears, John Watts, the Stamp Acts protests and more on our FREE walking tour on August 16.

Or you can pick up a copy of our book, Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

RIP Tony Rosenthal

EV Grieve just alerted us to the fact that sculptor Tony Rosenthal passed away last week at the age of 94.

Rosenthal is best known as the artist behind the rotating Astor Place Cube (officially, The Alamo -- so called because his wife thought it was a good name for an impenatrable object).

There are many other places in the city to view Rosenthal's public art, including:
  • 5 in 1, a tribute to the five boroughs of New York City, in One Police Plaza behind the Municipal Building;
  • Rondo at the New York Public Library's branch at 127 East 58th Street;
  • Hammarskjold at FIT (27th Street and Seventh Avenue);
  • SteelPark at 401 East 80th Street.
Also, according to the artist's website, a temporary exhibition is currently on view in the Ralph Lauren flagship store at 72nd Street and Madison.

Another interesting note: the Astor Place Alamo -- which was originally installed temporarily as part of a citywide "Sculpture in Environment" show -- is not one of a kind. Examples of Rosenthal's cube sculptures can be found in private and public collections, including Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park in Hamilton, Ohio, and at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, at Ann Arbor (where the piece is called Endover).

You can also read Tony Rosenthal's obituary in the New York Times.

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