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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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