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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Times Square Ball Drop

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 106 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 Plans called for a new time ball, but by the time the new AT&T headquarters was finished, the ball had been replaced by a giant, gilded statue by Evelyn Beatrice Longman called The Genius of Electricity.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.)

The current time ball, lit by energy-efficient LED diodes, now stays atop the old Times Building year round so that everyone who visits New York can see the actual ball that drops on New Year’s Eve.

[This article was adopted from an earlier post from 2009.]

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Postcard Thursday: Winter Scene Central Park

Welcome to our new feature, "Postcard Thursday," in which we dive into our extensive archive of New York City scenes to find some gems.

This unusual shot just came into our possession recently. There's no publication date or copyright on the card, but it has to be from 1907 or earlier. Prior to that year, messages had to be only on the front side of card (that's what the little white space at the bottom is for); the back was reserved entirely for the recipient's address.

Early Central Park views have a tendency to be spring and summer images, focusing on the Mall, Bethesda Terrace, Bow Bridge (then known as Swan Bridge) and a few other architectural features. Winter views are less common, even though more people came to park in winter than in summer during its first years in operation. What drew many winter revelers were the Lake and Pond--both used for ice skating--and the carriage drive, which could used for sleighing.

The view in this card is Gapstow Bridge, which crosses the Pond in the southeast corner of the park. When this image was created, the pond was bigger--it used to go all the way to the area occupied by Wollman Rink.

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Read more about the life of Central Park in Inside the Apple

or in our new book:

The birth of Central Park is a chapter in Footprints in New York; the book is out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Gilded New York

Gilded New York • © Julie Saad Photography; courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

If you are museum-hopping this holiday season, be sure to check out the new show at the Museum of the City of New York, "Gilded New York." This compact exhibition focuses on the fashion, grand balls, and over-the-top architecture of the period after the Civil War when wealthy New Yorkers were become richer than ever before.

As it is the inaugural exhibition in the new Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery, the jewelry is the star of the show:

Marcus & Co., Necklace, 1900 • Gold, natural pearls, demantoid garnet, enamel • Courtesy of Siegelson, New York

Tiffany & Co., Pendant brooch, ca. 1900 • Platinum, diamond, sapphire • Museum of the City of New York, Bequest of Mrs. V. S. Young, 82.163.1

Also worth exploring are the video monitors outside the gallery, which cycle through images of Gilded-Age parties (some of the clothes and accessories from which are on display), along with an excellent slideshow of the extravagant Fifth Avenue mansions that, in many cases, lasted just one generation.

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Four chapters in our new book Footprints in New York cover the Gilded Age, from Mrs. Astor's grand balls to J. Pierpont Morgan's contributions to the city. The book is out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today.

And, of course, Inside the Apple has some wonderful insights on the period as well. With priority shipping from Amazon, you can still get it there in time for Christmas!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Washington's Farewell at Fraunces Tavern

On December 4, 1783--two hundred and thirty years ago today--George Washington hosted a dinner for his officers in the Long Room at Fraunces Tavern. It was his final act as commander in chief of the Continental Army and, as far as he knew, also his farewell to New York City.

As we write in Inside the Apple:

Fraunces Tavern was one of Washington’s favorite places in the city and Samuel Fraunces, its proprietor, would eventually leave to become Washington’s personal steward.
On December 4, he held a banquet there to honor his officers and to say farewell:
"With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you; I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy, as your former ones have been glorious and honourable… I cannot come to each of you to take my leave, but shall be obliged to you, if each of you will come and take me by the hand."
When the feast was over, a tearful Washington headed to the ferry slip, boarded a boat, and sailed to New Jersey. The next day, he began his journey south to turn in his commission and retire to Mt. Vernon.
Washington's retirement, of course, turned out to be short-lived, and after presiding over the Constitutional Convention, he returned to New York in 1789 to be America's first president.

Fraunces Tavern still sits on Pearl Street, though the building that's there today probably doesn't much resemble the place that Washington knew. Still, a reconstructed Long Room is on view upstairs, furnished much as it would have been when Washington dined there. See more at

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Our forthcoming book
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers
has a chapter about Fraunces Tavern and its original occupants,
the DeLancey family.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Inside the Apple + Footprints in New York

Has everyone recovered from their Thanksgiving holiday? Today, as you may know, has been dubbed "cyber Monday," a day feauturing online deals. If you are shopping for your friends who love New York, why not a copy of Inside the Apple? You may already have one (you do, don't you?) but maybe other NYC fans aren't so fortunate.

The New York Times called Inside the Apple "a smart and entertaining window on the city of the past." Library Journal's "BookSmack!" praised it as "well written, readable, and interesting.... The book's final section of 14 walking tours brings these abstractions alive. Each location has its degree of awesome."

Today, is offering 30% off any single book if you use the promo code BOOKDEAL. That would take Inside the Apple down to $8.56--a real steal.

Follow this link to Amazon.

Or maybe you'd like to give a present to yourself....

Our forthcoming book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, doesn't come out until April 15th next year, but if you order it at today using the BOOKDEAL promo code, it will come out just $8.39--over ten dollars off the cover price. Order it today and it will ship in April when the book is ready.

Follow this link to Amazon.

We hope you have a wonderful holiday season! When Footprints in New York comes out in the spring, we'll be conducting special tours, giving talks and signings, and more. We'll keep you in the loop!

Michelle & James Nevius

Thursday, November 28, 2013

150th Anniversary of Thanksgiving

This year marks the 150th anniversary of modern Thanksgiving -- that is, a national holiday, celebrated yearly in November. The date moved around awhile before settling on the fourth Thursday in November during the Depression. (Congress legalized the date of Thanksgiving to eliminate it happening on the fifth Thursday of the month and thus shortening the Christmas shopping period.)

But did you know that in 1863, Abraham Lincoln actually declared Thanksgiving Day twice?

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 and James Nevius

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You can read more about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War in 

or in our forthcoming book
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers
(which has an entire chapter about Lincoln in New York)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Evacuation Day!

Today is a holiday that's seldom celebrated in New York anymore: Evacuation Day, the commemoration of the end of the American Revolution. On November 25, 1783, George Washington led the victorious Americans into the city and the final British troops evacuated, giving the holiday its name.

Even if you’re a bit fuzzy on your dates, you probably remember that the war ended with the Battle of Yorktown, which took place in Virginia in October 1781. However, despite the British surrender and the subsequent ratification of the Peace of Paris, British troops refused to leave their headquarters in New York City. (The British commander, Guy Carelton, was reluctant to leave due to the large number of Loyalist refugees that had come to the city following the British surrender. Many of those refugees eventually ended up settling in New Brunswick, Canada.)
To end the occupation once and for all, George Washington returned to New York on November 25, 1783, for the first time since he had lost Manhattan to the British in 1776. That morning the British troops pulled out of the city, sailing from the Battery through the Narrows. (Supposedly the last shot of the Revolutionary War was fired in anger at the shore of Staten Island.) Once the British had gone, Washington and his commanders marched into the city.

However, the British had left at least one insult behind. Someone had run a Union Jack up a flagpole, cut the halyard, and greased the pole so that when Washington arrived he’d still see the British colors flying over the city. It was up to a young sailor named John van Arsdale to rectify the situation. Using nails, he created cleats on the side of the flagpole and managed to carry a Stars-and-Stripes up to the top of the pole and replace the Union Jack before Washington’s arrival. (The somewhat fanciful depiction above is a later commemoration of the scene. Notice the fort directly behind the flagpole; that appears to be Castle Clinton in Battery Park, which wasn’t built until 1807 for service in the War of 1812.)

In the early part of the 19th century, Evacuation Day was celebrated with some fervor in New York City, but as the war passed into memory and many of its veterans died, the holiday lost its following. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a day of Thanksgiving and the modern tradition of Thanksgiving was born. With this holiday following on or near Evacuation Day, New York’s local holiday fell by the wayside. (Compare this to Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts, which commemorates the start of the Revolution and is still going strong.)

There are couple of places you can go to celebrate Evacuation Day. The first is Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street. This is the reconstructed version of the tavern where Washington had his final headquarters after his triumphant Evacuation Day return to the city. The tavern still operates a bar and restaurant as well as a fascinating small museum.

Nearby on Wall Street, a statue of Washington graces the front of Federal Hall National Memorial. Though the statue is there to commemorate a later event (Washington’s inaugural in 1789), it was erected on Evacuation Day.

In Union Square, take a look at the magnificent equestrian statue of Washington that stands at the 14th Street end of the square. This statue, by Henry Kirke Brown, depicts Washington riding into the city on Evacuation Day.

[This blog post originally appeared, in slightly different form, in 2008.]

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You can read more about Evacuation Day in 

or in our forthcoming book

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Era of New York City Boarding Houses

The "House of Genius" / courtesy of the
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
Inspired by "Renters Week" over at our favorite real-estate blog, Curbed (where, among other things, you can read jealously about $50 rents in the 1940s), we began thinking about a form of residential living that was once ubiquitous but has really fallen by the wayside: the boarding house.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, tenants in New York City were divided into three basic categories: renters, lodgers, and boarders. Though these terms were used differently by various people, in general, renters paid for their own apartment, which was not shared. Lodgers paid for a room (or bed) in someone else's apartment, but received no meals. Boarders had both a room and meals, usually breakfast and dinner.

As we've been researching and writing our new book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, boarding houses keep popping up. Footprints has a chapter on Edgar Allan Poe, who lived exclusively in boarding houses during his time in New York until he moved into his final home, Poe Cottage in the Bronx. Many other New York authors lived in boarding houses, as well: Herman Melville was born in one on Pearl Street in 1819; Walt Whitman lived in them most of his life; and on Washington Square, the so-called "House of Genius" (later torn down by NYU) was the residence of such luminaries as Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and O. Henry.

But it wasn't just writers--by some estimates, as much as thirty percent of New York's population by the middle of the 19th century lived in a boarding house. That included, before he was married, John Jacob Astor, who'd go on to be America's richest man. Astor actually married his landlady's daughter. In 1857, the first (and only?) contemporary study of boarding-house life came out, The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses by Thomas Butler Gunn. This slightly ironic guide features 30 different types of boarding house, including "The Cheap Boarding-House," "The Fashionable Boarding-House Where You Don't Get Enough to Eat," "The Theatrical Boarding-House," and "The Boarding-House Where There Are Marriageable Daughters." In his introduction, Gunn noted the necessity for such a work--everyone eventually ends up in a boarding house. "Like death," he wrote, "no class is exempt from it."

In some respects, what has replaced the boarding house in New York is the apartment share; people who were boarders in the nineteenth century would be roommates today. There was a sense of camaraderie around the communal table in New York's boarding houses that influenced life in the city; even with all the over-sharing on social media today, the city today lacks the intimacy of boarding-house life.

However, not everyone in a boarding house was happy to be there. A few weeks ago, we posted an excerpt from Edith Wharton's short story, "Mrs. Manstey's View," which talks about one woman's life in a boarding house. It was a theme Wharton (who is also featured in Footprints in New York) would return to, perhaps most famously in House of Mirth. In that novel, Wharton chronicles Lily Bart's descent from high society to abject poverty; at the end of the novel, Lily is living in the worst room in a boarding house--it's not even a real room. It's the end of a hallway that's been partitioned off so that the landlord can make a little extra money.

* * * *

Footprints in New York will be out on April 15, 2014, but is already available. (Visit for more information.) We also have a Twitter account ( where we tweet links to stories about the city and you can follow the book on Facebook at for more information about book talks, tours, etc. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nellie Bly's Race Around the World

courtesy of the New-York Historical Society (2000.447)

In the Amazing Race of its day, on November 14, 1889, stunt journalist Nellie Bly set out on a trip around the world in an attempt to break Phileas Fogg's fictional eighty-day record.

Bly first had the idea in 1888, but when she went to her editors at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, they told her they wouldn't sponsor her trip. As Bly later recalled in her book about the journey, her editor told her:
In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. Besides you speak nothing but English, so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this.

Well, a year later the paper had obviously had a change of heart. The editors summoned Bly to their offices and told her that not only were they sending her to break Fogg's record, but that she'd be leaving in just two days on the steamship Augusta Victoria.

As soon as word spread the Bly was leaving on her round-the-world journey, Cosmopolitan magazine decided to sponsor a trip of their own, recruiting journalist Elizabeth Bisland to race against Bly (and Fogg's record) by setting out the same day in the opposite direction.

Bly's trip took her to her first to England, then to France, where she met Around the World in Eighty Days author Jules Verne. Bisland, meanwhile, started her trip by train heading west across America. The two women never saw each other and, in fact, Bly didn't even know there was anyone racing against her until she received word while in Hong Kong. Determined to beat Bisland, the World hired a private train for Bly and when she reached California, it whisked her across the continent to New York.

In the end, Bly beat both Bisland and Fogg by completing her journey in 72 days (though that record would soon be beaten, as well).

The World, hoping to cash in on Nellie-mania, not only published Bly's dispatches -- which she sent via telegram from across the globe -- but also a "Round the World With Nellie Bly" game, where players vied to recreate Bly's race. The game soon became a hit and was published in full-color by McLoughlin Bros; a copy now resides in the New-York Historical Society, where reproductions of the game can be purchased, as well (at least, last time we were there).

Both Nellie Bly's account and Elizabeth Bisland's memoir are online at the University of Pennsylvania and both are worth checking out.

* * * *
Read more about New York City history in

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Brief Life of New Orange

New York City has gone by a lot of names: New Amsterdam, Manhattan, the Big Apple, Fun City (that was John Lindsay's idea to draw tourists). But did you know that for one year it was officially called New Orange? This weekend marks the 339th anniversary of the end of our second time being a Dutch city.

From the establishment of the first settlement in 1624 until the English takeover forty years later, the city on the island of Manhattan was New Amsterdam, the capital of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. In 1664, a convoy of English ships came to take control of that colony by force. As we write in Inside the Apple, after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660,

[Charles II's] ministers—notably his brother, James, Duke of York—had great territorial plans for the New World, which included complete English control of the area from Boston to the Carolinas. Hostilities had flared in 1652 during the First Anglo-Dutch War, but New Amsterdam didn’t really begin to feel the pressure until 1664, when Captain John Scott from Southampton, Long Island, asked English citizens in New Netherland to proclaim him the “President of Long Island,” serving as a proxy for the Duke of York. For many, this was the first they knew that the Duke had any designs on the area. 
To conquer New Amsterdam, the Duke dispatched Richard Nicolls.... Nicolls was given four ships, approximately six hundred soldiers, and instructions to keep New Amsterdam as intact as possible. He was, in effect, to treat the mission more like a hostile takeover by a rival corporation and less like a military attack.
Nicolls was able to seize New Amsterdam without firing a single shot; the town was renamed after its patron, the Duke of York, and gradually the city began to switch over to English rule.

However, in the spring of 1672, hostilities broke out between the Netherlands and England, leading to a Third Anglo-Dutch War. In September 1673, the Dutch navy seized Manhattan from the English -- this was one of the only parts of this Anglo-Dutch War to spill over to the American colonies -- and soon Anthony Colve was declared its new governor. Colve renamed the colony New Orange after William of Orange, the stadtholder of the Netherlands.

Luckily for Colve, so little had changed in Manhattan since the English takeover in 1664, that he didn't have to dismantle the apparatus of English governance. Many Dutch colonists still resided in New Orange -- some welcomed Colve with open arms; many probably shrugged and waited for the other shoe to drop.

It dropped on November 10, 1674. Hostilities between the Netherlands and England had ceased in the spring and a Treaty of Westminster, ratified in March, gave Manhattan back to the English. However, because it took so long for word to travel across the Atlantic in the seventeenth century, Colve did not end up surrendering New Orange until nearly eight months later. The city once again became New York and the Dutch never made territorial claims in North America again.

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Read more about New Amsterdam and early New York in

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Charles Atlas: Bodybuilder and Artist's Muse

Today would be bodybuilder Charles Atlas's 121st birthday were he still with us (he died in 1972). Though best known for his Dynamic Tension exercise program that could turn a 97-pound weakling into the hero of the beach, Atlas also earned extra cash by posing as an artist's model. By some counts, over a hundred sculptures and paintings feature Atlas, many of them pieces that New Yorkers pass every day.

Born Angelo Siciliano on October 30, 1892, Atlas moved to Brooklyn in 1905. One day when he was a skinny 15-year-old, he was lounging at Coney Island when a bully came up and kicked sand in his face. Vowing never to be so humiliated again -- and supposedly inspired by a statue of Hercules at the Brooklyn Museum -- Atlas began strength training. By the time he was nineteen, he was employed as a Coney Island strongman; in 1922, he legally changed his name, and in 1929 he launched his mail-order fitness program, known to comic-book readers for generations.

Before Atlas hit it big, he also made money posing as a studio model. No definitive list exists of what pieces were based on Atlas's physique, but the ones below are usually associated with him.

"Washington at War"
Perhaps the most famous statue in the city to feature Atlas is Hermon MacNeil's "Washington at War," which stands on the eastern pier of Stanford White's arch in Washington Square Park. In early architectural drawings, allegorical figures adorned the arch, but when the monument was unveiled in 1895, the pedestals stood empty. It took another twenty years for sculptures to be prepared, with MacNeil's added in 1916. (Its companion, "Washington at Peace" by A. Stirling Calder, debuted a year later.)

photo courtesy of
"Dawn of Glory"
Among Atlas's most dramatic poses is the allegorical "Dawn of Glory" in Highland Park in Brooklyn. This 1924 statue by Pietro Montana was dedicated to the men who died in World War I who hailed from the Highland Park and East New York neighborhoods. As the Highland Park website notes, the "sculpture depicts a male with face turned skyward in the process of disrobing, giving the illusion that the statue is unveiling itself. It is the physical embodiment of the spirit of those who served, and the glory in the hereafter."

"Washington Heights-Inwood War Memorial"
According to a 1942 New Yorker profile of Atlas (paywalled), it was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney who gave the bodybuilder his start as a model. Whitney was "working on a group for a soldiers' memorial" and in need of a "husky model." The article doesn't say what piece she was working on, but there's a good chance it is the memorial in Mitchel Park in Washington Heights, another local tribute to those who died in the First World War.

"Civic Virtue"
We've written about Frederick MacMonnies's "Civic Virtue" before -- it stood in front of New York's City Hall until Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had it unceremoniously removed to Queens, where it resided until December 2012. It has now been moved to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The "Rough Guy" (as the figure of Civic Virtue was nicknamed) is modeled on Atlas and has been deteriorating for years. There's no word, yet, on plans to restore the piece.

"Alexander Hamilton"
This last one isn't in New York, but is probably the most famous of all of Atlas's modeling work. Commissioned in 1920, this statue by James Earle Fraser stands in front of the U.S. Treasury Department and shows America's first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, his chest puffed out -- it almost looks like he's ready to strip off his clothes and show off his Dynamic Tension physique. Hamilton certainly looks more robust here than the "little man" that John Adams once described him as being.

* * * *
A quick plug for the new book:
comes out April 15, 2014, but you can already 
pre-order it if you are so inclined at

In the meantime, if you don't have a copy of 
what are you waiting for?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Armory Show at the New-York Historical Society

The subtitle of the new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society commemorating the centennial of the 1913 Armory show is "Modern Art and Revolution." It's worth walking through the galleries just to see how little of it seems revolutionary any more. In the hundred years since the original International Exhibition of Modern Art (as it was officially called), most of the works that were deemed shocking at the original are now looked on as staid. Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase is so wild that it continues to take people by surprise, but the intimate nature of this New-York Historical Society overview doesn't show it off to its best advantage.

The original armory show, held at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue, showcased over 1,250 works of art by both European and American artists. Today, it would be impossible to bring together all these works in one place, so the New-York Historical Society has wisely chosen to highlight a few key works, focusing not just on the famous European pieces, but also on the American artists who made up a large portion of the show.

This gives visitors the opportunity to spend time with works by Ashcan school painters like Ernest Lawson, Robert Henri, and John Sloan, whose McSorley's Bar is a highlight. Other Americans like George Bellows are well represented, as are lesser-known figures like John Marin, whose Woolworth Building, No. 31 (above) is terrific.

The museum is using timed tickets for entry, but we went on two successive Friday nights (when the museum is pay what you wish) and were handed tickets to walk right in. Maybe it will get busier over the next few months, but for now it seems like the timed tickets weren't necessary.

If you are interested in the moment when "modern" art took New York by storm, this show is well worth checking out. You can read more (much more--it's an extremely comprehensive website) at

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And read more New York City history in

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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reminder -- Sunday's tour "Farmland to Five Points"

Just a reminder that we are hosting a special immigration tour on Sunday, October 13, at 4pm, "From Farmland to Five Points," a look at the multiple, overlapping immigrants who've called the Lower East Side home.

Our new book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers (due out in the spring), focuses on this area of the city from multiple different perspectives. On our walk, we'll look at how people as different as Peter Stuyvesant, Alexander Hamilton, Calvert Vaux, Jacob Riis, Lillian Wald, and Martin Scorsese -- all subjects of the new book -- saw the area in their own time periods.

The walk will be about two hours. If you reserve from now until Tuesday, October 8, the cost is just $15 per person. Reservations taken on or after Wednesday, October 9, will be $20 per person.

If you reserve today, October 9, you can still get the special $15 rate -- we won't raise it until tomorrow. So act now!

Come experience this neighborhood through new eyes. Copies of our current book, Inside the Apple, will be available for sale and signing.

To reserve: email with your:

Number in your party
A cell number where we can contact you in case of emergency.

(Our general rule is to tour rain or shine, but we want to be able to be in touch with in a timely manner in case of inclement weather, so please do include a phone number.)

We will email you the meeting place. Hope to see you this weekend!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Terror of the Soul: Edgar Allan Poe at the Morgan Library

Today marks the 164th anniversary of the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe. Born in Boston in 1809, Poe died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. A former resident of that city, he was only passing through on his way home to New York (he lived in the Bronx near Fordham University) when he was found "rather the worse for wear" and "in great distress." Poe appeared not to have bathed in some time; his hair was dirty; his eyes were "vacant." He was wearing an ill-fitting suit--maybe it wasn't even his own.

What had happened to him?

That's just one question we actually touch on in the Poe chapter of our new book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, which comes out in April. (It's already available on for you early birds.)

But while you wait for the book to come out, you can go up to the Morgan Library & Museum to check out their new Poe exhibition, "Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul," which opened this past Friday and runs until January 26, 2014.

The exhibit pairs Poe's early manuscripts with first editions, drawings, photographs, and works by some of the many authors that Poe influenced. Like many exhibits at the Morgan, it's a small show, but entertaining for anyone interested in seeing poems and stories in the master's own hand. (Alas, you can't go today to commemorate Poe as the museum is closed on Mondays.)

Also interesting: today's installment of the "Page-turner" at The New Yorker, which investigates whether some stories attributed to Poe's brother, Henry, are actually by Edgar himself.

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Friday, October 4, 2013

A Man's World at the Metropolitan Playhouse

As many of you know, we're big fans of the work they do at the Metropolitan Playhouse in the East Village (and not just because they sometimes ask us to come speak to the audience after the plays).

The Metropolitan showcases forgotten gems of the American stage, many of which are linked to New York history. Running now through October 13, A Man's World by Rachel Crothers is just such a play and well worth checking out. The acting is stupendous, the sets are wonderful, the direction is spot on -- but what's really fascinating is how Crothers evokes the joys and perils of bohemian life in Greenwich Village at the turn of the twentieth century. Written and set in 1909, the play throws together a group of stock bohemians in a boarding house (probably one very similar to the so-called "House of Genius" on Washington Square where Willia Cather, John Dos Passos, and Stephen Crane all lived.)

Residents in the house include a couple of painters, a playwright, a composer who makes money give "$5 violin lessons for $1.50," an opera singer, and Frankie Ware, a female novelist who's struggling to raise her foster son while fending off critics who think that such strong prose must be written by a man. Her relationship with another boarder, newspaper publisher Malcolm Gaskell, is also the subject of much gossip. The conflicts between modern liberal attitudes and old-fashioned social mores is gripping, and--since the play was written amidst the world it critiques--a real eye-opener as to the sentiments of the time.

You can read more and buy tickets at

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Friday, September 27, 2013

W.H. Auden in New York

This weekend marks the fortieth anniversary of the passing of poet W.H. Auden, who died September 29, 1973. Born in Britain in 1907, Auden moved to New York in 1939, ultimately becoming an American citizen. He lived a number of places around the city between 1939 and 1953 before settling in a tenement at 77 St. Mark's Place, where he would live until a year before his death.

Auden's first home in New York was the Hotel George Washington at Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street. He lived there for two months before moving to the Upper East Side and when he left, he gave them a lengthy poem, which includes the lines:

It stands on the Isle of Manhattan
Not far from the Lexington line,
And although it's demode to fatten,
There's a ballroom where parties may dine....

[T]he sheets are not covered with toffee,

And I think he may safely assume
That he won't find a fish in his coffee
Or a very large snake in his room.

Auden moved to 237 East 81st Street, a nondescript tenement apartment; he had come to America with his friend Christopher Isherwood who joined him on East 81st Street, but Isherwood evidently thought the place haunted. In general, Isherwood was overwhelmed by New York City, and by the end of 1939, he'd decamped to California, never to return.

Auden, meanwhile, relocated to Brooklyn Heights, where he lived at 1 Montague Terrace 1939-40; a plaque on the side of the building at that address trades off the Auden connection, but the apartment complex that stands there now is not the building where Auden lived.

Leaving Montague Terrace, Auden moved into the famed "February House" at 7 Middagh Street, which he shared with an eclectic group of artists: Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Over the next decade, Auden moved around a great deal; he taught at the University of Michigan and Swarthmore College. He was drafted but turned down for service in World War II. Eventually, he ended up at 77 St. Mark's Place (which, many years earlier, had housed the Russian newspaper Novy Mir, which counted among its staff writers exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky).

Auden purchased a summer house in Austria, but spent his winters in New York, drinking at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge ("You could never say when he was drunk, because he was drinking all the time") and writing poetry. Hannah Arendt later wrote that Auden's "slum apartment was so cold that the toilet no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner."

Auden was a parishioner at St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery nearby on Tenth Street, but he's not buried in their magnificent churchyard. He died in Vienna and is buried in Austria near his summer home.

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Friday, September 20, 2013

Columbus Day Tour | Sunday, October 13, at 4:00pm

To celebrate Columbus Day, you're invited to a special immigration tour on Sunday, October 13, at 4pm, "From Farmland to Five Points," a look at the multiple, overlapping immigrants who've called the Lower East Side home.

Our new book, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers (due out in the spring), focuses on this area of the city from multiple different perspectives. On our walk, we'll look at how people as different as Peter Stuyvesant, Alexander Hamilton, Calvert Vaux, Jacob Riis, Lillian Wald, and Martin Scorsese -- all subjects of the new book -- saw the area in their own time periods.

The walk will be about two hours. If you reserve from now until Tuesday, October 8, the cost is just $15 per person. Reservations taken on or after Wednesday, October 9, will be $20 per person.

Come experience this neighborhood through new eyes. Copies of our current book, Inside the Apple, will be available for sale and signing.

To reserve: email with your:

* Name
* Number in your party
* A cell number where we can contact you in case of emergency.

(Our general rule is to tour rain or shine, but we want to be able to be in touch with in a timely manner in case of inclement weather, so please do include a phone number.)

PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR PREVIOUS PUBLIC TOUR sold out pretty far in advance, so if you want to join us, don't forget to sign up while there is still space!

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Monument on Greenwich Village's Monument Lane

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West.

On September 13, 1759, Major-General James Wolfe died during the Siege of Quebec in the French and Indian War (aka the Seven Years War). Wolfe's heroic victory won the war for Britain, allowing it to seize most of Atlantic Canada, and made Wolfe both a martyr to the cause and an instant celebrity.

The most famous commemoration of Wolfe's death on the Plains of Abraham is Benjamin West's painting (above), now in the National Gallery of Canada. But New York had its own memorial to General Wolfe, an obelisk that was erected in Greenwich Village at the end of what came to be known as "Obelisk Lane" or "Monument Lane."

The General Wolfe monument at Stowe.

Very little is known about the memorial. Some think that it was based on a similar obelisk erected in Stowe in Buckinghamshire, England, by Lord Temple, which still stands today. But this is just speculation. Indeed, if it weren't for a few old memoirs and a couple of maps, we wouldn't know that the monument existed at all.

Montressor Map, ca. 1765-1766.

The obelisk was likely erected soon after Wolfe's death, probably in 1762 by Robert Monckton. Monckton was Wolfe's second in command at Quebec and in 1762 he became royal governor of the Province of New York. He lived in Greenwich Village, in a house owned by Admiral Peter Warren, which stood only a few minutes walk from the monument.

The obelisk appears on the Montressor map of 1765-66, where a "Road to the Obelisk" leads to a spot just east of Oliver De Lancey's farm marked "Obelisk Erected to the Memory of General Wolf [sic] and Others."

The Ratzer Plan, ca. 1766-77
The Ratzer Plan of the city -- issued in 1766 or 1777 -- shows a similar road, calling it "The Monument Lane." If you are familiar with this part of Greenwich VIllage, that lane is now Greenwich Avenue, which runs northwest from Sixth Avenue just south of Christopher Streets. However, many other small streets in the Village were once considered part of the lane. As the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society wrote in their annual report of 1914:
Monument Lane began at the present Fourth Avenue and Astor Place and ran westward along the present Astor Place; thence to Washington Square North about 100 feet west of Fifth Avenue, where it crossed a brook called at various times Minetta Brook, Bestevaer's Kill, etc.; thence to the present Sixth Avenue and Greenwich Lane; thence along the present Greenwich Lane to Eighth Avenue between Thirteenth and Fourteenth Streets, where it intersected the now obsolete Southampton Road; thence northward about 150 or 200 feet farther, where it terminated at the Monument.
Tracing those roads today, it seems likely that the road probably incorporated what today is Washington Mews and MacDougal Alley, just north of Washington Square, roads that have long been thought to be Native American trails. Indeed, it would not be at all surprising to discover that all of Monument Lane existed long before Europeans settled the area that would come to be known as Greenwich Village.

No one is entirely sure when the monument to General Wolfe was taken down and by whom, but by the time the next map of Manhattan was drawn, ca. 1773, the monument is gone and references to Monument Lane disappear soon thereafter. Some speculate that Oliver De Lancey, a loyalist, destroyed the monument when his lands were confiscated by the Americans after the war, but it seems more likely that the obelisk was already long gone by that time.

If you want to drink a toast to the general and his monument, you do have the opportunity. On Greenwich Avenue is the restaurant Monument Lane which serves a drink called the General James Wolfe. If you're in the neighborhood, stop by and raise a glass to Britain's fallen hero.

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There will be much more about Oliver De Lancey and his family in our next book,
Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers,
coming out April 15, 2014 from Lyons Press.

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