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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.

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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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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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