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Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

Thank you for another year of great blogging. We wouldn't do this without you--our readers--and we appreciate all the feedback throughout the year.

If you haven't already started following us on Facebook or Twitter, there's no time like the present! We will have a bigger presence on social media in 2013, so be sure to sign up.

Since a question we get asked a lot is "Why does the ball drop on New Year's Eve?" we are running below our previous post on the subject. Enjoy!

Michelle & James Nevius


Tonight, an estimated billion people around the world will watch the illuminated ball drop in Times Square to ring in the new year. This New Year’s tradition dates back 102 years—the dropping ball replaced an earlier fireworks display—but the notion of dropping a ball as a way of keeping time is an older tradition.

In 1877, a ball was added to the top of the Western Union Building on Lower Broadway. Each day at noon, a telegraph signal from Western Union’s main office in Washington, DC, would trip a switch in New York and the ball would descend from the flagpole. Visible throughout the Financial District—and, more importantly, from all the ships in the harbor—it allowed people to reset their watches and ship chronometers. For the first time, New York ran on a standard time.

As the New York Times noted in 1877, this idea of a ball dropping to keep the time wasn’t new. For many years prior to the Civil War, the New York custom house had signaled the time with a ball drop and in the 1870s it was common to find time balls in major European ports. However, when it began operation in April 1877, the Western Union ball was the only one in a North American port and quickly became a fixture of the Manhattan skyline.

(Western Union, afraid that it wasn’t always going to work, set up a system whereby a red flag would be flown from 12:01 to 12:10 p.m. on days that the ball refused to drop. Further, information would be sent to the press each day informing them whether the ball actually dropped at noon or had fallen at the wrong time!)

In 1907, the New York Times—then owners of the skyscraper from which the ball drops on New Year’s Eve—adopted the time ball as their symbol for ushering in the new year. That original Times Square ball, made of iron and wood and lit by 25 incandescent lights, weighed 700 pounds!

In 1911, the original Western Union Building was demolished by the company’s new owners, AT&T, so they could erect a larger structure. (That impressive marble building, known as 195 Broadway, still stands.) Plans called for a new time ball, but by the time the new AT&T headquarters was finished, the ball had been replaced by a giant, gilded statue by Evelyn Beatrice Longman called The Genius of Electricity. (The statue remained on the building until 1980, when it was removed, restored, and installed in lobby of the AT&T headquarters in Midtown. It now resides in Dallas, Texas.)

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

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dirigibles atop the Empire State Building

If you've read Inside the Apple (and if you haven't, there's no reason not to start today), you know that the Inside the Apple archives are chock full of old postcards of New York City. One recent addition to that collection was this wonderful shot of a dirigible moored to the top of the Empire State Building.

Despite the fact that this did not -- and could not -- happen, the image of an airship floating above the skyline has become a remarkably durable image of New York.

As we write in the book, the Empire State Building was in competition with the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street to claim the title of world's tallest building. Famously, the Chrysler Building had beaten 40 Wall by constructing a secret spire, or "vertex," that was put into place in October 1929.

After William Van Allen revealed the Chrysler Building’s vertex, it became imperative to make the Empire State Building taller without adding a “useless” spire. To that end, Smith announced in December 1929 that the top of the Empire State would house a mooring mast, 1,300 feet from the ground, for transatlantic dirigibles. 
This was utter folly. Not only does a dirigible need to be anchored by both the nose and the tail (which is why they landed at air fields in New Jersey in the first place), the updrafts in Midtown were so strong that a zeppelin the length of two city blocks would have whipped around in the wind like a child’s toy. More to the point, a dirigible’s gondola was in the ship’s center; people would never have been able to (as pictured here in an early publicity drawing) exit from the helium-filled balloon straight into the 102nd-story waiting room.

In late September 1931, the New York Evening Journal completed the only successful dirigible mooring. At great danger to life and limb, it delivered a package of newspapers from the Financial District to the Empire State Building’s roof. It looked great on the newsreel cameras, but would be the closest the mooring mast ever saw to real use.
Six years later, the Hindenburg would explode in New Jersey putting an end to any thoughts -- real or imagined -- of dirigibles mooring in Manhattan.

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Read more about the history of the Empire State Building in 

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Happiest Place in New York City

image courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy
Doing research on a completely different topic, we stumbled upon the blog Computational Story Lab ++;, a collection of musings from a "group of applied mathematicians working on large-scale, system-level problems" at the University of Vermont.

The article we found posed the beguiling question, "What's the happiest place in New York City?" You can read the full post here, but the gist of their admittedly non-scientific inquiry was to use a list of words that had previously been ranked as indicators of happiness and connect them to geotagged Twitter posts throughout the city. (Note: from the blog, it appears that their research focused only on Manhattan, but it could be that the outer boroughs simply did not have as much data.)

So, what's the answer? Not surprisingly, the highest number of positive tweets come from within Central Park, and in the park the highest ranked place seems to be somewhere near the hypothetical intersection of Seventh Avenue and West 77th Street. This is on the Ramble side of the lake and is full of serene and picturesque spots. Nearby highlights include the Ramble Stone Arch (pictured above) and the recently rebuilt Oak Bridge.

What's your happiest place in the city? Let us know and maybe we can include it in a future post.

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Read more about the history of Central Park in New York in 

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Friday, December 14, 2012

George Bellows at the Metropolitan Museum

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Forty-two Kids, 1907. Oil on canvas. 42 x 60 in. (106.7 x 152.4 cm). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund

From now until February 18, 2013, you have the opportunity to see a remarkable exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "George Bellows." This retrospective of the artist's short career is filled with wonderful paintings of New York City, where Bellows lived and worked from 1904 to his death in 1925.

Bellows came to New York at the age of 22 to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. He studied at the New York School of Art under Robert Henri and was pushed -- along with classmate Edward Hopper -- to capture New York in its gritty realism.

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Why Don't They Go to the Country for Vacation?, 1913. Transfer drawing, reworked with lithographic crayon, ink, and scraping, 25 x 22 1/2 in. (63.5 x 57.2 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund

Among Bellows favorite subjects were the immigrants of the Lower East Side; one section of the exhibit chronicles the development of his image "The Cliff Dwellers," -- a chaotic Lower East Side street scene -- as a painting, watercolor, and lithograph. Bellows was also drawn to the edges of the island, and the show features many scenes of the East River, Hudson River, Battery Park, and Riverside Park, a locale the artist would return to again and again.

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Blue Snow, The Battery, 1910. Oil on canvas, 34 x 44 in. (86.4 x 111.8 cm). Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Museum Purchase, Howald Fund

Seeing these images reproduced in two dimensions on a computer screen doesn't do them justice. If you are going to the Met this holiday season, do stop by the Bellows show. It's a compact exhibit and well worth your time.

George Bellows (American, Columbus, Ohio 1882–1925 New York City). Rain on the River, 1908. Oil on canvas, 32 x 38 in. (81.3 x 96.5 cm). Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Jesse Metcalf Fund

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Read more about the arts in New York in 

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Jimi Hendrix and Cafe Wha?

Jimi Hendrix when he was still known as Maurice James.
Had he lived, today would have been rocker Jimi Hendrix's 70th birthday (he died in 1970). Though his recording career was very short -- he released just four albums between 1967 and 1970 -- he had an incredible impact on popular music.

Hendrix arrived in New York in 1966 to try his hand at the Greenwich Village music scene. He had been performing under the name Maurice James, which he soon changed to Jimmy James. After busking on the sidewalks of the Village -- wouldn't that have been a thing to see? -- Hendrix formed the Blue Flame, which served as the house band at Cafe Wha? on Macdougal Street. This was the same cafe where Bob Dylan had first performed when he'd arrived in New York in January 1961.

Chas Chandler, the bassist for the Animals, came to see the Blue Flame perform at Cafe Wha?. Impressed with the guitarist and the song "Hey Joe," Chandler invited Hendrix to come to London. The Blue Flame broke up, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed, and Hendrix's meteoric career took off.

So, if you find yourself in the Village today, stop by Cafe Wha? to pay tribute to its place in rock and roll history.

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Read more about the Greenwich Village music scene in 

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

1863: The Year of Two Thanksgivings

Even if your knowledge of the history of Thanksgiving is a little shaky, you probably know that it became a national holiday when Abraham Lincoln declared it one in 1863. In the words of the original proclamation, issued in October 1863 and actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, the former senator from and governor of New York:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
However, this was actually Lincoln's second Thanksgiving proclamation of the year. On July 16, he had issued the following proclamation (again, likely by Seward):
It has pleased Almighty God to hearken to the supplications and prayers of an afflicted people, and to vouchase to the army and the navy of the United States, on the land and on the sea, so signal and so effective as to furnish reasonable grounds for augmented confidence that the Union of these States will be maintained, their Constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently preserved; but these victories have been accorded not without sacrifice of life, limb and liberty, incurred by brave, patriotic and loyal citizens. Domestic affliction in every part of the country follows in the train of these fearful bereavements. It is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father, and the power of His hand equally in these triumphs and these sorrows.
Now, therefore, be it known that I do set apart Thursday, the sixth day of August next, to be observed as a day for National Thanksgiving, praise and prayer, and I invite the people of the United States to assemble on that occasion in their customary places of worship, and in the form approved by their own conscience, render the homage due to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the Nation's behalf, and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit, to subdue the anger which has produced, and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion; to change the hearts of the insurgents; to guide the counsels of the Government with wisdom adequate to so great a National emergency, and to visit with tender care, and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land, all those who, through the vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles and sieges, have been brought to suffer in mind, body or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation through paths of repentance and submission to the Divine will, back to the perfect enjoyment of union and fraternal peace.
(FYI: That second paragraph is one sentence.)

The first Thanksgiving of 1863, August 6, was celebrated with proper solemnity. As the New York Times noted the next day, "The National Thanksgiving was observed throughout the City yesterday by an almost entire abstaining from secular pursuits. The stores throughout were closed, and there appeared to be a very general desire to unite in the purposes of the day -- Thanksgiving and Praise. Very many of the churches were open, where proper observances were had, and each was crowded to overflowing." What they were praising and/or hoping for was continued Union success; with the Union victory at Gettysburg in July, many hoped that tide of the war had finally turned in favor of the North.

Of course, on the minds of New Yorkers would have been the fighting closer to home -- the Civil War draft riots -- which had waged on the streets less than a month earlier. However, it is unclear if the riots played any role in the Thanksgiving commemorations.

Having celebrated Thanksgiving in August, why did Lincoln then proclaim another one in November? The declaration for this second Thanksgiving seems little different from the first; there had been no major Union victories in the meantime for which the nation could express thanks; and Lincoln's proclamation doesn't make any ties to harvest festivals, the Pilgrims, or any of the things we now firmly associate with the holiday. Had Lincoln not issued a second Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863, do you think we'd be celebrating the national holiday in August? Any thoughts are welcome in the comments.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Michelle & James Nevius

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Perfect NYC Gift

As Thanksgiving approaches, that means that Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday can't be far behind. If you are shopping for a fan of New York City this holiday season, we'd just like to remind you that Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City makes a great present. In 182 short chapters, we cover everything from pre-contact Manhattan to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, with special attention to places that you can visit and explore on your own.

Or, as the New York Times put it, the book is "a smart and entertaining window on the city of past."

You have an array of buying options: currently has one of the best online prices. At Barnes & Noble's website, you can either order online or find out if your local store has the book in stock.

And if you do want to support and independent, local bookstore this weekend for Small Business Saturday (and who doesn't want to buy local?), you can use this handy website to find an independent book shop near you that stocks Inside the Apple. In New York City, we know that our friends at Shakespeare & Company always have it in stock.

Have a wonderful holiday -- and don't forget that Sunday is Evacuation Day.

Michelle & James Nevius

Monday, November 12, 2012

Happy Birthday, James Renwick

One of New York's most influential architects was James Renwick, and yesterday may or may not have been his 194th birthday -- sources variously list the date of his birth as November 1, November 3, and November 11.

We do know that Renwick was born in the Bloomingdale section of Manhattan (now the Upper West Side) in 1818. He was the son of Columbia College professor James Renwick, Sr., and Margaret Brevoort, the sister of Henry Brevoort, one of the city's most prominent landowners.

Renwick studied engineering at Columbia (graduating at age 18, which was not that unusual in that era), and became a supervising engineer on the new Croton aqueduct system that was bringing water from Westchester county to New York. In 1843, Grace Episcopal Church purchased land from Renwick's uncle Henry to build a new parish in Greenwich Village. Likely through Brevoort's influence, Renwick -- who'd never built a building in his life -- was given the job. The church was immediately the toast of the town. As we write in Inside the Apple:
Former mayor Philip Hone, now living on nearby Great Jones Street, soon tweaked the new parish’s congregants in his diary: "This is to be a fashionable church and already its aisles are filled…with gay parties of ladies in feathers and 'mousseline-delaine dresses' and dandies with moustaches and high heeled boots; the lofty arches resound with astute criticisms upon 'Gothic Architecture' from fair ladies who have had the advantage of foreign travel, and scientific remarks upon 'acoustics' from elderly millionaires who do not hear quite as well as formerly." 
The other great New York diarist of the time, George Templeton Strong, took issue with the city’s sudden love of all things Gothic and levied his criticism squarely at Renwick:  "If the infatuated monkey showed the slightest trace or germ of feeling for his art, one could pardon and pass over blunders and atrocities…. [Renwick is] caught up in the prevailing romantic preoccupation with keeps and dungeons illuminated by flashes of lightning and ringing with the clash of sword on shield."

Hot on the heels of the success of Grace Church, Renwick won the competition to design the new Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Built between 1847-1855, the original building -- today known as "The Castle" -- was a major influence on the widespread use of Gothic Revival architecture in America.

Besides the Castle, Renwick's most famous work is probably St. Patrick's Cathedral, completed in 1879; however, New York is filled with other Renwick buildings, from the old Hotel St. Denis (across the street from Grace Church, now offices), to the row of apartments on West 10th Street known as "Renwick Terrace," to the Packer Collegiate building in Brooklyn Heights that was once the Church of St. Ann. It is nearly impossible to study 19th-century architecture in the city without experiencing and enjoying Renwick's influence.

So, no matter what day you were born -- Happy Birthday, James Renwick!

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Read more about James Renwick in 

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Monday, October 29, 2012

The Great September Gale of 1815

NOTE: This is a slight rewrite of an article we wrote last year as we awaited Hurricane Irene. With Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the city, we thought it might be timely to repost.
Stay safe out there!

Prior to Hurricane Sandy, the most famous hurricane to come ashore in the New York region was undoubtedly 1938's "Long Island Express," a Category 3 storm that hit on September 31, 1938, wreaking havoc throughout New York and New England.

However, while that hurricane and its aftermath are well documented, an equally strong storm arrived on September 23, 1815, that is now largely forgotten. Known as the "Great September Gale of 1815" (the word hurricane was not yet in popular use), it very likely also a Category 3 storm. The storm originated, as many Atlantic storms do, in the warm waters of the Caribbean, striking the Bahamas before moving northward.

When the storm hit Long Island, it was probably packing 135-mph winds. Though wave heights aren't known, it seems likely that it matched the effect of the 1938 storm, which had a highest recorded wave height of 50 feet. The storm was so strong that it literally rewrote the landscape: before 1815, the Rockaways and Long Beach were connected as one, long barrier island. It was the Great September Gale that rent them asunder, permanently creating the inlet between them.

The worst of the storm's damage came in New England. An 11-foot storm surge rolled up Narragansett Bay, destroying over 500 homes, dozens of ships, and flooding Providence, Rhode Island.

Perhaps the most important after-effect of the gale was to cause Harvard mathematician John Farrar to realize that these types of gales were "moving vortexes," an essential first step toward the modern definition of a hurricane.

Stay safe everyone!

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Read much more about the history of New York in

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Last chance: The Colorama at Transit Museum's Grand Central Annex

photo by Jim Pond / courtesy of George Eastman House

As you go around the city this weekend preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy (or the "Frankenstorm" as the National Weather Service has dubbed it), consider popping into Grand Central to check out the Transit Museum annex's exhibit on Kodak's famous Colorama. The show is only open until November 1, so if you are interested, you'd better act now.

From 1950 to 1990, the east wall of Grand Central Terminal -- above the balcony where the Apple store now sits -- featured a rotating series of Ektachrome transparencies. Before the terminal's landmark restoration, there was no staircase to the east balcony (and, of course, no fancy retail establishments in the main hall), making the Colorama one of the most interesting architectural features of the station.

The prints were huge -- 18 by 60 feet -- and were created using a special process where Kodak stitched together 41 panels of film, each approximately 19 inches wide by 20 feet long. (In later years, as technology improved, Kodak was able to cut the number of panels used in half). Once the panels had been stitched together, reinforced grommets were added at six-inch intervals to allow the transparency to be held taught once it was installed. The Colorama was then shipped from Kodak's headquarters in Rochester to New York City where it was swiftly unrolled and hooked in place.

The photographs changed approximately every three-to-five weeks and often reflected seasonal scenes: a family at the beach in summer, or cross-country skiing at Christmastime. Alas, the prints in the current show are nowhere near as big as the originals, but anyone who commuted through Grand Central in the 1960s (when the bulk of the prints in the show date from) will instantly remember these bucolic scenes, which serve as a great reminder of the aspirational nature of both advertising and photography in the Don Draper era.

For a slide show of Colorama prints, visit the New York Times "Lens" blog at

For more on the history of the Colorama, Kodak has a feature on their website at

photo by Hank Mayer / courtesy of George Eastman House

The Transit Museum annex is just off the main concourse in Grand Central (in the Shuttle Passage), adjacent to the Station Masters' Office. The show is open though November 1; Monday – Friday: 8 AM to 8 PM, Saturday – Sunday: 10 AM to 6 PM.

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For more on the history and architecture of Grand Central, pick up a copy of
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Charles Keck's "Hiawatha" at the House of Morgan

Our blog is probably not the place you normally turn for recommendations on where to buy Halloween paraphernalia, but we urge you to head to Wall Street sometime in the next two weeks to the Halloween pop-up store that has opened at 23 Wall Street.*

Of course, Halloween decor isn't the reason we're sending you..... Twenty-three Wall Street is better known as the "House of Morgan." Sitting at the junction of Broad and Wall streets, it is one of the monuments to American capitalism. Once one of the grandest banks in the Financial District, the interior has been stripped of all its charm -- except in one place, over the doorway. There, Charles Keck's masterful running frieze depicts the story of Hiawatha. It is the only part of this magnificent space that is left, and since the building's interior is normally closed to the public, now is a rare chance to check it out in person.

J. Pierpont Morgan began his career in finance in the 1860s and within a decade had built his first bank at this corner. Morgan's fame and influence skyrocketed in the Gilded Age. In many ways, he was single-handedly responsible for calming the Panic of 1907. As we write in Inside the Apple:

[O]n the news of the Knickerbocker Trust Company’s insolvency after an ill-fated attempt to corner the copper market, Morgan had saved the day. In just 15 minutes, he had extracted promises of $25 million to help prop up the stock market. However, there remained the issue of a number of failing trust companies. So, Morgan gathered New York’s financiers at the library. According to historian Ron Chernow, the commercial bankers were locked in the library, “beneath signs of the zodiac and a tapestry of the seven deadly sins” and the trust company men were put in the study, “beneath the gaze of saints and Madonnas.” Morgan sat in the librarian’s office playing solitaire. At five o’clock in the morning, the incarcerated bankers finally agreed to a $25 million bailout of the weaker trusts and were allowed to go home.
In 1913, the old Morgan bank on Wall Street was torn down so that a new building could be built. As the New York Times reported at the time, observers were surprised to discover that Morgan was not planning a "high office building...with the lower floors reserved for J.P. Morgan and Co.," but instead was contemplating a building "somewhat under ten stories high." The final product was, in fact, only four stories tall, most of the space taken up by the colossal main hall with its skylighted 30-foot ceiling.

The bank was designed by Trowbridge and Livingston (who also built 14 Wall Street, catty-corner from Morgan's bank), and they hired sculptor Charles Keck to provide the interior sculptural detailing. Keck was a New Yorker who had apprenticed with Augustus Saint-Gaudens and was a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome; his best-known work in New York is the Father Duffy statue in Duffy Square in front of the TKTS ticket booth. According to the December 1914 edition of Architecture magazine, Keck created two scenes: on "one side, the industries of the sea, the earth, and the air are depicted through the medium of Greek mythology." On the other side -- and this is what you can easily see just above the main entrance door inside the building -- he "borrowed from the North American Indian mythology the legend of 'Hiawatha' who is supposed to have given the Indians their knowledge of agriculture and the arts."

Like most Americans, Keck's familiarity with the Hiawatha story was likely from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, which was published in 1855 and quickly became an extremely popular American verse. Here, a white missionary -- "the Black-Robe chief" -- preaches to the natives:

And the Black-Robe chief made answer, 
Stammered In his speech a little, 
Speaking words yet unfamiliar: 
"Peace be with you, Hiawatha, 
Peace be with you and your people, 
Peace of prayer, and peace of pardon, 
Peace of Christ, and joy of Mary!"

* The Halloween City store is open daily through November 2nd.

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Read more about J.P. Morgan's bank in 

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reminder -- Architectural Walking Tour of SoHo, Chinatown, and Little Italy

**** UPDATE ****
There are just a few spaces left for our tour this Sunday, so if you'd like to join us, please reserve soon!


October is always a great time to walk around the city, so on Sunday, October 14at 4:00PM we will be hosting a public walking tour of The Architecture of SoHo, Little Italy, and ChinatownThis walk will focus on the architectural treasures – some well-known, others obscure – that populate the city’s immigrant neighborhoods. We will see work by Stanford White, Richard Morris Hunt, Calvert Vaux (just to name three luminaries) along with civic buildings, churches, tenements, and more.

The tour will last about 90 minutes and cost $15 per person.  To reserve, send
  • Your name
  • The number in your party
  • And a contact phone number (preferably a cell #) to                                               

Reservations are taken on a first-come, first-served basis, and we may sell out, so act early.
The meeting place will be emailed to you when you reserve.

Hope to see you there!

Michelle and James Nevius

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

WWII and New York at the New-York Historical Society

State Historical Society of Missouri Art Collection. Art© T.H. and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. 
We stopped by the New-York Historical Society on Friday for the opening day of their new exhibit, WWII and New York, which runs through May 27, 2013.

The show begins with a small section examining attitudes in the city -- and America -- in the years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We're not sure if this is by happenstance or design, but this is also the hardest part of the show to see. Many of the objects on exhibit are hung in cases so that visitors have to stand right in front of them to get a decent view. (This is fine for the person with their nose pressed to the glass, but not so good for everyone else in the room.) The exhibit opens up in subsequent sections, which cover "The New York Home Front," "Going to War," and "Victory and Loss."

The show is best when displaying the ephemera of the era: Chic Young's It's Our War comic strip demonstrating what children needed to do to defend the country; the Maiden Form company's application for a "Declaration of Necessity" for their bras for factory workers; the miniatures from the National War Poster competition at MoMA.

The exhibit also serves as a sobering reminder of the lives lost during the war. Towards the end of the show, there are profiles of thirteen New Yorkers who served -- from Commander-in-Chief Franklin D. Roosevelt on down -- including the tales of those who died in combat. Also affecting are Thomas Hart Benton's paintings -- in particular "Embarkation—Prelude to Death (Year of Peril)" (above), which shows young American servicemen boarding a ship in New York on their way to Europe. If you have the time, step into the small theater nearby and watch WWII and Me, a film by Francis Lee, a New Yorker from East 10th Street who was a combat cameraman who documented his experiences from basic training to Omaha Beach.

Like many exhibitions (and this isn't a critique of the N-YHS as much as it is a criticism of every museum), there's too much in the show to take in all at once. From the U-Boats patrolling New York Harbor to the WAVES in the Bronx, the exhibit tries to cover every possible base. The upside to this approach is that there's something for everyone here, from children to veterans, and you'll surely discover something about wartime New York that will be new to you. You can also explore the show online at

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Read more about New York in World War II in

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sunday, October 14: Architectural Walking Tour of Soho, Little Italy, and Chinatown

October is always a great time to walk around the city, so on Sunday, October 14, at 4:00PM we will be hosting a public walking tour of The Architecture of SoHo, Little Italy, and Chinatown. This walk will focus on the architectural treasures – some well-known, others obscure – that populate the city’s immigrant neighborhoods. We will see work by Stanford White, Richard Morris Hunt, Calvert Vaux (just to name three luminaries) along with civic buildings, churches, tenements, and more.

The tour will last about 90 minutes and cost $15 per person.  To reserve, send
  • Your name
  • The number in your party
  • And a contact phone number (preferably a cell #) to                                               

Reservations are taken on a first-come, first-served basis, and we may sell out, so act early.
The meeting place will be emailed to you when you reserve.

Hope to see you there!

Michelle and James Nevius

Friday, September 28, 2012

Tatzu Nishi: Discovering Columbus

If you've been by Columbus Circle recently, you've noticed that the monument to Christopher Columbus is shrouded in scaffolding. This has been built for a dual purpose -- beginning in November, it will be used so that conservators can clean and restore the 120-year-old monument. But until then, the area atop the scaffold has been transformed by artist Tatzu Nishi into a living room where you can see the Columbus statue up close and personal.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
In the years leading up to [the Columbus quadricentennial in] 1892, Carlo Barsotti, the publisher of the Italian-language paper Il Progresso Italo Americano diligently promoted the idea that Columbus be honored in New York, which was fast becoming one of the largest centers of Italians in the world. Through public subscription, Il Progresso raised the money for a statue to be erected...and hired Sicilian artist Gaetano Russo to create a monument to be ready for October 12, 1892. It was unveiled in the newly named Columbus Circle as part of the celebrations for Columbus Day.

Nishi's installation takes Columbus out of the public sphere and reexamines Russo's artwork not only as part of a domestic scene -- there are couches, newspapers, and CNN running on a big-screen TV -- but also as a stereotypical American cultural reference. The wallpaper Nishi has designed for the installation features other American icons, such as the Empire State Building, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, baseball, and the old west.

The installation runs through November 18. Admission is free, but timed tickets are required and can be requested at We're told that it is particularly compelling at night, though we've only seen it from the exterior after sunset.

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Friday, September 21, 2012

The Great Fire of 1776

Today marks the anniversary of the beginning of the end of American control of Manhattan during the Revolutionary War – the Great Fire of 1776, which decimated Lower Manhattan on the night of September 21.

As we write in 
Inside the Apple:
The fire started on the evening of September 21, 1776—perhaps in the Fighting Cocks Tavern on the wharf, though that has never been substantiated—and quickly engulfed the city west of Broadway. The churchyard surrounding Trinity Church kept the fire from heading south, but neither Trinity was spared, nor anything between it and St. Paul’s Chapel. St. Paul’s, itself only ten years old, had a bucket brigade manning its roof and was saved. In all, over 400 buildings were gone—nearly twenty-five percent of the city’s structures.

The British immediately blamed the Americans. (One American blamed by the British was Nathan Hale, who was arrested for spying that same day. Hale, however, had nothing to do with the fire.) General Howe called it a “horrid attempt” by a “number of wretches to burn the town….” As most of the damage happened on “Holy Ground” and other Trinity Church property, some saw it as an explicit attack on the Church of England’s power and influence. In truth, the Americans had contemplated the idea of torching the city if it fell into British hands. One of Washington’s generals, Nathaniel Greene (the “Fighting Quaker”), had pressed Washington in that direction. However, when Washington floated the idea by John Hancock, the Continental Congress immediately nixed it and it is unlikely that either Washington or Greene disobeyed Congress.
By the time the fire was extinguished, New York was firmly in British hands and it would remain the British center of authority until November 25, 1783 -- Evacuation Day.

One thing that ticked off the Americans left behind in the British-occupied city was the fact that none of the fire damage was repaired. Throughout the war the area west of Broadway was left to smolder in ruins. Much of the rebuilding -- including re-erecting the city's main church, Trinity, Wall Street -- would not happen until the 1790s.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

1901: Teddy Roosevelt Becomes the First New Yorker to be President

On September 14, 1901, William McKinley succumbed to the gunshot wound he'd suffered eight days earlier at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, thus elevating Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency.

Not only was Roosevelt America's youngest president (at age 42), he was the only one to be born and raised in New York City. As we write in Inside the Apple:
[Roosevelt] was born on October 27, 1858, in the family’s brownstone townhouse at 28 East 20th Street. Often in poor health as a child, much of Teddy’s later bully and bravado was the result of the exercise he undertook in and around Gramercy Park, Madison Square, and Union Square—where his grandfather lived—to boost his physique. The Roosevelt family moved out of the 20th Street house in 1872, and in 1916, the building was demolished to make way for a restaurant and retail shops.

The construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace is a good example of how a person’s stock can rise after death—especially a former president. In 1916, when the original home was torn down, T.R. was still a polarizing figure in American politics. Having run unsuccessfully as the third-party candidate for president in 1912—which split the vote and ensured the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson—Roosevelt chose in 1916 to throw his support behind Republican Charles Evans Hughes in an effort to thwart Wilson’s reelection. But he did so only after the Republican Party made it clear that Roosevelt would not be given the nomination himself. Three years later, he was dead and within weeks he was being lionized. The New York State legislature chartered the Woman’s Roosevelt Memorial Association a mere 23 days after Roosevelt’s death. By mid March, the organization had purchased the building that had gone up in place of T.R.’s boyhood home as well as the property next door, which had been owned by Roosevelt’s uncle, Robert. Their plan was to “restore” the houses as they would have looked in 1865, based on the “description written by Colonel Roosevelt in his autobiography.” What this meant, in practice, was tearing the buildings down and starting from scratch. In 1923, the newly built home was opened to the public and was praised as a “shrine to American patriotism.”
When President McKinley was shot on September 6, Roosevelt rushed to Buffalo, but the president's condition soon improved and it was thought that sending Roosevelt to join his family on vacation would send a hopeful signal to the American people. Roosevelt and his family vacationed in the Adirondacks and on September 13, the Vice President summitted Mount Marcy. Camping at Lake Tear of the Clouds nearby, Roosevelt's party was interrupted by a trail guide who had come with a telegram from Secretary of War Elihu Root: "The president appears to be dying and members of the cabinet in Buffalo think you should lose no time in coming."

Roosevelt quickly descended twelve miles to the Tahawas Club, a hunting resort, and then left via stagecoach (in the dark and the fog) to North Creek, the closest train station. By the time Roosevelt had reached North Creek, McKinley had died, and Roosevelt was sworn in in Buffalo later that day.

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Buddy Holly's 76th Birthday

September 7, 2012, would have been the seventy-sixth birthday of rock and roll icon Buddy Holly. Alas, Holly died February 3, 1959, in a tragic plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa.

On the 50th anniversary of Holly's death, we ran a popular story about his time in New York City, which we are reposting below.

Happy Birthday, Buddy!

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I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.
—Don McLean, American Pie

Today, February 3, 2009, marks the 50th anniversary of the “day the music died”—the plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa, that claimed the lives of Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, and rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly.

Originally from Lubbock, Texas, Holly was one of the earliest stars to take what was then still being called “race music” and cross over to white audiences. His early hits with the Crickets—including That’ll Be The DayPeggy SueOh Boy!, and Not Fade Away—had a profound influence on later acts (including the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who were huge fans) and are still some of the greatest rock songs ever written.

Before his untimely death at age 22, Holly had split with the Crickets and moved to New York City to be closer to the New York music scene. He and his new bride, Maria Elena, moved into the Brevoort apartments at 11 Fifth Avenue. What was then a brand-new apartment building had recently replaced the famous Brevoort Hotel, which had at one time been among the city’s finest hostelries. (Among other famous events, the Brevoort Hotel was the place where Charles Lindbergh received the $25,000 Orteig Prize for his solo flight across the Atlantic; Orteig was the hotel’s owner.)

From print and online sources, it seems unclear if Buddy Holly lived in Apartment 4H or Apartment 3B (though 4H seems to get the nod from more definitive sources). Whichever apartment it was, he set up a home tape recorder and in December 1958 made his final recordings, among them Crying, Waiting, Hoping and Peggy Sue Got Married. Posthumously released with overdubs and studio trickery, the original tapes have circulated for decades among collectors. They were recently included on the definitive Holly rarities set, Down the Line.

When Holly moved in to the Brevoort in 1958, he paid $1,000 a month rent for a corner unit with a wraparound terrace. A two-bedroom apartment in the building (which has been a co-op since 1981) now goes for about $1.495 million.
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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Thurgood Marshall's Harlem

Forty-five years ago today, on August 30, 1967, Thurgood Marshall was confirmed as the first African American Supreme Court justice. Prior to serving on the Supreme Court, Marshall was most famous as chief counsel of the NAACP, based primarily in New York City. As the NAACP's attorney, Marshall argued 32 cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court (winning 29 of them), most notably Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down the notion of "separate but equal" in public school education and beyond.

For many years, the NAACP was headquartered at 224 West 135th Street, near Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd.  In many ways, 135th Street was the most important street in the neighborhood. In addition to the NAACP, it was home to the YMCA, where many Harlemites stayed when they first arrived in New York, and was the epicenter of theaters and clubs where the Harlem Renaissance flowered. At the corner of 135th and Adam Clayton Powell was once a nightclub called Small's Paradise, famous for its rolling skating wait staff. Small's is long gone -- today the building houses an IHOP -- but above it is the Thurgood Marshall Academy, one of the best high schools in the area.

Around the corner on 134th Street is St. Philip's Episcopal Church, built in 1911 by the firm of Tandy & Foster, New York's first licensed African American architects. This was Thurgood Marshall's parish during his time in Harlem in the 1940s and 50s.

Many prominent African Americans (including the church's architect, Vertner Tandy) lived on nearby Striver's Row, considered by many to be the nicest development in the area. Marshall, however, opted to live further north in Sugar Hill, at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, a large apartment building built by Schwarz and Gross in 1917. Perhaps the single best address in Harlem, the building also housed W.E.B. DuBois, singer Julius Bledsoe, New York judge Eunice Carter, painter Aaron Douglas, and Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP.

Today, a one-bedroom apartment at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, which has gone coop, runs about $300,000. But back in the 1970s the building had fallen into such disrepair that the city seized it for nonpayment of taxes. In 1994, the New York Times reported that the city was preparing to sell the building back to its tenants for $250 per apartment. (That's not a typo.)

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