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Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Armories of New York

photo of the 69th Regiment by wallyg on flickr
As we mentioned in our blog post last week, this past Sunday was the centennial of the 1913 Armory show, an important moment in the history of modern art. The exhibit--officially titled the International Exhibition of Modern Art--is known as the Armory show because it was housed in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue, an imposing Beaux-Arts fortress that had been completed just seven years earlier.

Walking the streets of New York, you are liable to come upon many such military structures; some, like the 69th Regiment, are still operating as National Guard posts. Others, including the famous arsenal in Central Park, have long since been decommissioned. Why does the city have such a proliferation of these buildings?

One answer is that before the Civil War, it was up to each town and city to provide for the nation's common defense. Volunteer militia companies were the backbone of the country's armed forces, and these militias required space to house munitions, drill, and fraternize. The most famous of the militias in New York was the Seventh Regiment, also known as the "Silk Stocking" regiment.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
First known as the Eleventh Regiment, it guarded New York harbor during [the War of 1812]. During the Marquis de Lafayette's farewell tour of America, the regiment acted as his honor guard and gave itself the name National Guard after Lafayette's Garde Nationale in Paris. When militia companies were reorganized later in the 19th century, this idea of having a National Guard stuck....
In 1880, the Seventh Regiment opened its new headquarters on Park Avenue. Designed by one of its own veterans, Charles Clinton, the massive structure...takes up the entire block between Park and Lexington avenues. The rear section was a drill hall--at the time, the largest interior drilling space ever created, spanned by a tremendous 300-foot barrel vault--and the front was three stories of meeting rooms for the various regimental companies.... Of particular note are the Veterans' Room and Library on the main floor, which were done by Louis Comfort Tiffany's Associated Artists, and remain today the most complete Tiffany interiors.
In 1884, recognizing the dearth of suitable drilling space for New York's military companies, an Armory Board of the City of New York was established with the purpose of building or renovating existing drill halls. Over the next forty years, armories proliferated around the city.

When the 69th Regiment opened in 1906, designed by the firm Hunt & Hunt, it was unique in its contemporary (though classically inspired) Beaux-Arts styling; most other armories tried to convey their function through the use of faux-Medieval architectural detail. Along with the Seventh Regiment (today known as the Park Avenue Armory), it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, both for its role in the 1913 Armory Show and for being home to the "Fighting 69th," New York's famous Irish regiment, one of the first to volunteer for action in the Civil War.

Other famous armories around the city from this period include 94th Street armory (parts of which were integrated into the design of Hunter College High School), the First Battery armory, which became ABC television's first studio building, and the Fort Washington Armory at 168th Street, now a track and field center.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

The Armory Show at 100

This Sunday marks the centennial of the opening of the famed International Exhibition of Modern Art held at New York's 69th Regiment Armory and now generally known simply as "The Armory Show."

We are dedicating two posts to the show -- next week, we'll look at the history of the building that gave its name to the show and to numerous medieval-looking armory buildings that are scattered around New York.

For a history of the exhibit, these articles from the New Criterion and New York Times are a good place to start. Today, rather than try to summarize the show and importance, we thought we'd simply showcase some of the remarkable art that rocked America. (When the show moved to Chicago, the press there called it “profane,” “blasphemous,” “obscene,” and “vile.”) In all, there were over 1,250 works by over 150 artists. Some works, like Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, were maligned at the time and have come to be seen as icons of American art. Other works and their artists have disappeared from public consciousness. Below, a tiny sampling of some of the works in the show:

A Centennial of Independence by Henri Rousseau (1892)
courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust
Georges Braque Violin and Candlestick (1910)
courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Paul Gaugin Words of the Devil (1892)
courtesy of the National Gallery of Art 

Charles Sheeler Landscape (1913)
Marcel Duchamp Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912)
courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Henri Matisse The Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra) (1907)
courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Art

Another fun artifact from the show is the list (now in the Archives of American Art) drawn up by Pablo Picasso of European artists he thought would be appropriate for the exhibit, including Duchamp (spelled wrong), Juan Gris, and -- seemingly as an afterthought -- Braque.

Courtesy of the Archives of American Art.

Picasso was in the exhibit himself, with Woman with Mustard Pot:

Pablo Picasso Woman with Mustard Pot (1910)
courtesy of the Geemente Museum
There will be two museum exhibition commemorating the Armory Show this year. One will be at the New-York Historical Society in the fall; the second opens this Sunday (on the exact centennial of the show's debut) at the Montclair Art Museum.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

The Wedding of General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren

This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of the marriage of Charles S. Stratton -- known professionally as Gen. Tom Thumb -- and Lavinia Warren at Grace Church in Greenwich Village. Stratton was the most famous, and most famously exploited, little person in the nineteenth century, working for infamous showman P.T. Barnum from the age of five.

In 1842, Barnum reopened the refurbished American Museum on Broadway near St. Paul's Chapel. The museum housed a cavalcade of curiosities, natural phenomena, outright fakes, and people whose physical appearance fell outside the norm. The next year, Barnum first met Stratton, who had stopped growing at the age of six months at only twenty-five inches tall. Barnum convinced Stratton's parents to allow him to take over the boy's education, and soon Stratton was on stage in New York. Barnum invented a back story for the boy, telling people that he was eleven years old and had emigrated from Britain. He also dubbed Stratton "Tom Thumb" after a character from Grimm's fairy tales. (The name had been coopted a few years earlier for Peter Cooper's steam locomotive, and Barnum was surely hoping to hitch his performer to Cooper's successful use of the name.)

Stratton performed a song, dance, and comedy act written for him by -- and sometimes co-starring -- Barnum. Among Stratton's biggest hits were his impersonations of famous historical figures, including Napoleon Bonaparte. Soon the act went on tour, and Stratton was the toast of Europe, meeting Queen Victoria, and cementing Barnum's status as one of the greatest promoters in history.

The Strattons (at left) after their wedding.
In the early 1860s, Barnum hired another little person, Lavinia Warren (born Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump), who had been working as a performer on a Mississippi River boat. According to accounts at the time, when Stratton first laid eyes on Warren, it was love at first sight. Barnum encouraged the match, and on February 10, 1863, they were married at a ceremony at Grace Church. It was one of the biggest events of the season, and a bright spot for many New Yorkers during the depths of the Civil War.

Barnum, always on the make, managed the wedding to the smallest detail. His first choice was to have the ceremony take place at St. Paul's (due to its proximity to the American Museum), officiated by Episcopal Bishop Henry C. Potter. When Trinity parish nixed the idea, Barnum switched the venue to Grace, helping cement that church's reputation as the spot for high society's biggest functions.

Admission to the wedding was via an elaborate, multi-part (and therefore, presumably, not easily forged) ticket. A separate reception admission cost $75, a fortune for many people in 1863. According to some reports, over 15,000 people applied for tickets to attend the reception, which was held at the Metropolitan Hotel on Broadway. As the New York Times put it in their coverage of the nuptials, the burning question the next morning was "Did you or did you not see Tom Thumb married?"

The paper went on to note that
the Church was comfortably filled by an audience comprising representatives of each and every strata of New-York's respectable society. There were very many elegantly dressed ladies, and quite as many who paid but little respect either to the request of the inviter, the customary rules of etiquette, or the obvious proprieties of the occasion. It can hardly be considered the correct thing to newspaperize the presence of private individuals, however conspicuously placed or dressed, but the appearance of Maj.-Gen. BURNSIDE we may mention with propriety....
On their honeymoon, the Strattons went to the White House, where they were warmly received by Abraham Lincoln. They remained happily married for twenty years, until Charles died of a stroke in 1883. Lavinia remarried, and continued to perform into the twentieth century, appearing in early silent films.

After the wedding, pictures of the "the General and his wife" and the "Fairy Wedding" became popular collector's items. Churches began performing "Tom Thumb Weddings" as fundraisers, with children playing the roles of the wedding party. Indeed, this appears still to be happening today. Barnum, of course, found lasting fame as one of the founders of the modern circus, and his Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey production continues to this day.

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