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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Infinite Variety" at the Park Avenue Armory

One of our favorite buildings in New York, the Park Avenue Armory--aka the Seventh Regiment Armory--is playing host to a wonderful, free exhibition, Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts. The catch is that it is only up for two more days, so if you would like to see it, you must go today or tomorrow.

The Seventh Regiment, or "Silk Stocking Regiment," was one of the most important volunteer militias in America in the era before the U.S. had a large standing army. As we note in Inside the Apple:

The regiment was called in to quell the Astor Place riots and was instrumental in the military’s role in ending the Civil War Draft Riots in 1863…. In the 1870s, the city ceded the regiment a block on Fourth Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets. Originally, this had been part of Hamilton Square, one of the few pubic plazas that had appeared on the original Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 but had never been built, in part because it lay along the awful stretch of Fourth Avenue that was the New York and Harlem Railroad’s right of way. 
While the city was happy to rent the land to the Seventh Regiment for a nominal fee, neither it nor the state had any funds available for construction, so the regiment was forced to raise its own funds. It turned first to its wealthy members, who contributed $200,000, before holding events to raise more. From that point forward, the regiment and its new headquarters would be associated with large events, from fairs and grand balls to sporting events and antique shows. 
The regiment picked one of its own veterans, Charles Clinton, to design the building. The massive structure, opened in 1880, takes up the entire block between Park and Lexington Avenues. The rear section was a drill hall—at the time, the largest interior drilling space ever created, spanned by a tremendous 300-foot barrel vault—and the front was three stories of meeting rooms for the various regimental companies. These rooms are some of the most lavishly appointed in the city; of particular note are the Veterans’ Room and Library on the main floor, which were done by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Associated Artists, and remain today the most complete Tiffany interiors. 

While the Tiffany rooms aren't open to the public, the massive drill hall is playing to host to this wonderful exhibition of mainly 19th- and early 20th-century quilts. Even if you have zero interest in quilts, the show is worth seeing. Innovatively hung by Thinc Design--the same people who are working on the September 11th Museum at the World Trade Center site--at first glance, the show has more in common with a showcase of Abstract Expressionism than Americana. But once you begin to delve into the designs of the individual quilts (and there are 650 of them from Joanna S. Rose's personal collection), the show becomes a primer in American history and values from the 19th century.

The exhibit is open today, Tuesday 3/29, from 11:00-7:00PM and tomorrow, 3/30, from 11:00-5:00PM.

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Read more about the Park Avenue Armory and the Seventh Regiment in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

In case you’ve missed this news, today marks the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—one of the deadliest industrial fires in American history and a turning point for worker’s safety and unionization in America.

The factory was predominantly staffed with young women who lived in Little Italy and the Lower East Side, and when we are giving walking tours of those neighborhoods, our clients are sometimes surprised to discover that the factory was in Greenwich Village. So much of that neighborhood—including the Asch Building, where the fire occurred—is now dominated by NYU that it is easy to forget that the stretch of the Village on both sides of Broadway was once a vital part of New York’s garment industry.

In Inside the Apple we dedicate an entry to the fire. We note:

Long before the fire broke out, the factory was infamous for its poor labor practices. In 1909, New York’s largest job action, known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” began when workers walked off the job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. For months, the majority of the city’s shirtwaist factories were crippled by the strike, but the factory owners refused to budge. Though the International Ladies Garment Workers Union brokered a settlement in 1910 that stopped short of forcing the recognition of their union, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, refused to agree to it. The factory’s workers went back to work having gained few concessions.

On the day of the fire, a Saturday, only about half of the factory’s 500 employees had come to work. Just as the afternoon shift was ending, a fire broke out on the eighth floor. Typical of garment centers of the day, the factory floor was a virtual tinderbox, with clothes, scraps of cloth, and unswept trimmings everywhere. When the fire started, the majority of the workers on the eighth and tenth floors were able to escape,* but those on the ninth floor had been locked in. This was done, some speculated, to cut down on unauthorized breaks, though it is also likely that it kept union organizers off the factory floor. Soon the elevators stopped working, which meant that the only remaining exit was the fire escape. Tragically, the fire escape had been poorly installed and maintained, and when too many young women began to climb down, it collapsed beneath their weight, sending them plunging to their death. The rest of the women on the ninth floor were then faced with jumping out of windows or waiting to burn to death. Many chose the former, raining down on the assembled crowd from above. The fire department did arrive, but as their ladders reached no higher than the sixth floor, it did little to save the women. In the end, 146 women died, most of them at the scene—some were only thirteen years old.

* Blanck and Harris, the owners, were able to get up to the roof and escape from there.

A number of events are commemorating the fire and its aftermath:

·         Today at 10:00 a.m., a parade will begin at the south end of Union Square Park and wend its way to the site of the Asch Building (today called the Brown Building), where there will be speeches by the mayor and others. Marchers in the parade will carry 146 shirtwaists on poles, one to commemorate each woman who died.

·         If you are interested in where these young women lived, the Bowery Boys put together a post that maps out all of their homes, some of them in outer boroughs. Many of those places will have the names of victims inscribed in chalk on the sidewalk courtesy of Ruth Sergel and a group of volunteers; see for more information.

·         Today at 7:00 p.m. in the Cooper Union’s Great Hall, join artists, storytellers, and others for “100 Years After: The Triangle Fire Remembered and Rethought.”

·         PBS aired a documentary on the fire earlier this month on American Experience; it is available to stream online at

·         HBO’s documentary, Triangle: Remembering the Fire is being shown on CNN this Saturday, March 26, at 11:00PM (EST), so that anyone with basic cable can see it.

·         NYU’s Grey Art gallery has an exhibition through July 9 entitled Art, Memory, Place, that commemorates the fire and its victims.

·         The New York Times has provided a number of interesting articles and blog entries in the past few days, including a look at how the fire shaped the lives of such public servants as Frances Perkins and an article about how the fire was one of the first big tragedies captured by photojournalists.

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Read more about the Triangle fire in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Manhattan Street Grid Turns 200

Readers of Inside the Apple know that we are big fans of the Manhattan street grid, in part because it has made the city so easy to navigate on foot. Today, the grid plan--technically the "Commissioners’ Map and Survey of Manhattan Island"--turns 200 years old.

As we write in Inside the Apple:

With the population rapidly increasing and without any plan for regulating property sales and population growth, it seemed very possible that the city would simply collapse underneath its own weight, with too many people crammed into the area of the city below Chambers Street but not enough food, water, or sanitation to go around. 
The grid plan was overseen by a commission headed by Gouverneur Morris, the eminent politician who’d written the preamble to the Constitution. The survey itself was carried out by John Randel, Jr.; he and his team walked out every block of the city from Houston Street to 155th Street in Harlem, charting over 2,000 city blocks in all. It was enough room, as was noted at the time, “for a greater population than is collected at any spot this side of China.”
The goal was to create a regular pattern of east-west streets; along the avenues, exactly twenty of the blocks made up a mile. In turn, these blocks could be divided into regular lots, 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep. Each lot would back up precisely to its neighbor, with no room behind for service alleys or carriageways. Not only did eliminating alleys allow for bigger, more desirable lots, it reflected the reality that very few in New York would ever have the means to own a horse and carriage. Thus, there was no need for rear stables.  
As so few people had access to horses and carriages, the Commissioners’ Plan reinforced that New York was a city for walking. The plentiful east-west streets connected the two rivers where most commerce took place, with the wide north-south avenues designed for transporting goods and people over longer distances. Until the opening of the subway in 1904, the grid served this original purpose well. Even with the coming of horse-drawn omnibuses, trolleys, street cars, and private vehicles, New York was simply easier to walk, and the vast majority of the city’s workers lived within relatively easy walking distance of their jobs.
Yesterday's New York Times had a few good articles about the grid, including an interactive feature where you can compare Manhattan today with Randel's 1811 plan, which is hours of fun.

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Read more about the Manhattan street grid in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Happy Birthday, Italy!

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. Not only does New York have a large Italian community (by 1920, it was one of the top ten Italian cities in terms of population), the city also has direct ties to the man who made modern Italy possible: Giuseppe Garibaldi.

During Garibaldi's second exile (the first was in South America), he arrived in New York on July 30, 1850. During his nine-month stay, he was employed by Antonio Meucci, who owned a candle factory on Staten Island. Garibaldi's Staten Island cottage is now the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum. This Sunday, March 20, the museum is hosting Massimo Riva, chair of the Italian Studies department at Brown University, who will discuss the Risorgimento and Garibaldi's life as told through the 273-foot "Garibaldi Panorama," a watercolor painting in forty-nine scenes.

The photo above shows the Garibaldi statue in Washington Square Park, which--last we checked--was still inaccessible due to the park's ongoing restoration.

Read more about Italians in New York in Inside the Apple.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Irish Mass at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral

If you are looking for a history-minded way to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, head down to St. Patrick's Old Cathedral on Mott Street in NoLita this Saturday, March 12, to hear the Mass celebrated in Irish.

The cornerstone of Old St. Patrick's--the original cathedral for New York's diocese--was laid in 1809. As we write in Inside the Apple:
The cathedral, made of schist and designed by Joseph-Francois Magnin, who was at the same time working on City Hallwas dedicated on May 14, 1815. The building was one of the largest churches in its day—120 feet long from the entrance to the apse, with a vaulted ceiling rising 85 feet above the floor.... Locating the church this far north of the city was strategic. In 1815, the cathedral’s property on Mott Street was still in the countryside, far beyond the day-to-day reach of most New Yorkers. (It is a little over a mile north of City Hall.) With Catholicism treated with a mix of skepticism and hostility, building the cathedral far from the eyes of the Protestant establishment was simply a measure of safety. Today, people sometimes wonder why St. Patrick was chosen as the patron of this cathedral when New York wouldn’t see a great influx of Irish until the potato famine in 1845. However, when the cathedral opened, the first Bishop of New York, John Connolly, described the 17,000 Catholics in the city as already being “mostly Irish.” The city even had an Irish paper, the Shamrock, which had started publication in 1810.

When the "new" Saint Patrick's in Midtown opened in 1876, the Mott Street building became a parish church. In December of last year, Archbishop Timothy Dolan elevated Old St. Patrick's to the level of Basilica for its "historical, spiritual, cultural and artistic value. This is still a living, breathing, loving, embracing, serving parish."

The Mass on Saturday at Noon will be concelebrated by Fr. Aidan O’Driscoll of County Cork. There will be Irish liturgical music by Cantor Paddy Connolly with accompaniment by Jared Lamenzo on the Cathedral’s historic 1868 Erben organ. There will be readings in Irish by New York University’s Pádraig Ó Cearúill and Clare Curtin, longtime member and former trustee of the New York Irish History Roundtable.

Following the Mass, the Washington Square Harp & Shamrock Orchestra will entertain the crowd with live ceili music. The Mass and reception following are free (donations are welcome).  Old St. Patrick's is on Mott Street between Prince and Houston.

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Read more about the Irish in New York in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Remembering Inauguration Day

For most of America’s history, today—March 4—marked inauguration day. When the Constitution was being drafted, an early March date seemed practical; votes in the general election were cast for electors, and those electors would have to find the time to make their way to the nation’s capital (then New York City) to choose the president.

The very first inauguration was actually April 29, 1789, when George Washington was sworn in on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street. (Federal Hall National Memorial, an old US Treasury Building, now marks the spot.) Less than a week later, Congress convened in the same building for the first time, and from that point forward March 4 was the day that power transferred. The first March 4 inaugural was in 1797, when John Adams succeeded Washington in a ceremony in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson was the first president inaugurated in Washington, D.C., in 1801, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the last to be sworn in on that day. In 1933, the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, shortening the lame duck period for Congress and the President and moving the President’s swearing in to January 20.

Throughout the Nineteenth Century, there were plenty of Presidents who were sworn in on dates that weren’t March 4. If inauguration day fell on a Sunday, it was usually pushed to the next day (though sometimes it was Saturday instead). Beginning with John Tyler, a number of Vice Presidents had to assume the office upon the death of the President. New Yorker Chester Arthur, Vice President under James Garfield, was sworn in September 19, 1881, at his home on Lexington Avenue before heading to DC to assume the presidency.

Among the biggest commemorations today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural in 1861—which was, not at all coincidentally, also the day that the Confederate Stars and Bars were adopted as the flag of the states in rebellion. You can read Lincoln’s speech here

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Read more about the presidency in New York in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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