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Friday, January 31, 2014

Strip the City: New York

A couple of days ago, the second season of "Strip the City," debuted on the Science Channel. (We didn't even know there'd been a season one, but better late than never.) The new season began with a show on New York, focusing on the methods and infrastructure necessary for surviving another giant storm like Superstorm Sandy.

The most compelling segment is the first, where CGI allows the show to demonstrate how the new World Trade Center 1 (aka Freedom Tower) was constructed. The show then goes on to talk about resurfacing and strengthening the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, deploying subway plugs (for keeping water out of the system), maintaining the city's steam system, and the controversial proposal to build a sea barrier to keep storm surges away form New York harbor.

You can watch a couple of clips at The graphics are great and the content compelling, but the show does perpetuate at least one long-standing myth. Many people, including experts, believe that the reason Chinatown and Greenwich Village don't have tall buildings is because there isn't bedrock in those neighborhoods to build on. That's true--the bedrock is much farther from the surface--but this is what's known as a false causality. The lack of bedrock wasn't the reason the buildings didn't go up in those areas; instead it was socioeconomic factors which led these chiefly residential neighborhoods to stay low-rise.

The show is being repeated a number of times over the next week on the Science Channel, if you'd like to watch the whole thing.

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Read more about the infrastructure of New York
(like the famous street grid) in

and don't forget our next book

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Postcard Thursday: Where Have All the Mansions Gone?

Andrew Carnegie's mansion (today the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum)

The news broke yesterday that the government of Qatar is purchasing the Wildenstein Gallery building at 19 East 64th Street for either $125 million (via the Post) or $90 million (via the Wall Street Journal). In either case, it's a spectacular amount of money to spend on an Upper East Side mansion.

However, while the price may be high, Qatar is following in the footsteps of nearly a century of others who've converted Gilded Age homes into museums, consulates, embassies, and schools.

The postcard above is a view, ca. 1910, of Andrew Carnegie's massive home that stretches the block from 90th to 91st Streets on Fifth Avenue. As we write in Inside the Apple:
In 1898, Carnegie acquired the lots on Fifth Avenue between 90th and 91st street—at that point much farther north than polite society deemed fashionable—so that he could build a large mansion in relatively isolated splendor. (In the rapidly growing city, the Carnegies were always concerned with light. When Carnegie’s widow, Louise, sold the lot next door to the Church of the Heavenly Rest in 1926, it was with the proviso that the Gothic towers have no north-facing windows and they be clipped so that no shadows would fall on her lawn.)

Carnegie reputedly told his architects, Babb, Cook & Willard that he wanted his retirement home to be modest, plain, and “roomy”; upon completion in 1901, the 64-room structure certainly had plenty of space. A grand first floor showcased the public rooms, including a conservatory and a music room featuring Carnegie’s gargantuan Aeolian organ. Above were the Carnegies’ private quarters on the second floor, guest rooms on the third, and servants’ quarters in the attic. Amenities included a passenger elevator (one of the first in a private home) and a prototype of central air conditioning.
Louise Carnegie lived in the house until her death in 1946; by that time, Fifth Avenue and the Upper East Side had undergone massive changes. Many mansions had been torn down (see Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.'s Empty Mansions for the tale of one of the largest homes to be destroyed), but those that remained had been sold at greatly reduced prices. One Astor home had been purchased by the government of India; a Vanderbilt house had become the headquarters of a non-profit. When the French government moved out of Rockefeller Center's Maison Francaise, they scooped up Stanford White's Payne Whitney house just south of the Metropolitan Museum--because a mansion on Fifth Avenue had become cheaper than an office in Midtown. (What a contrast to the price that Qatar is paying today!)

Soon after Louise Carnegie's death, the Carnegie Corporation leased the mansion to Columbia University, who used it as the headquarters for their Graduate School of Social Work. (A nearby mansion owned by James B. Duke had similarly become the home of NYU's art history program.) The social work students used the home for nearly 25 years before relocating to Columbia's Morningside Heights campus when the Carnegie Corporation gave the mansion to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the first branch of the Smithsonian to be located outside Washington, DC.

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Read more about the Carnegie Mansion in

and don't forget our next book

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger and the Almanac House at 130 West 10th Street

The world woke this morning to the news of the death of legendary singer Pete Seeger at age 94. Anyone who's ever taken our Dylan-themed tour of Greenwich Village has probably been dragged by James to a small house on West 10th Street to listen to him wax rhapsodic about the Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.

Seeger was born in New York in 1919 and was exposed to folk music early, later recalling (as noted in the Washington Post obituary) that he heard artist Thomas Hart Benton play "John Henry" on the harmonica in Greenwich Village. After dropping out of Harvard in the late 1930s, Seeger became a full-time singer. In the autumn of 1941, he rented the house at 130 West 10th Street to be the headquarters of the Almanac Singer, a loose collective of singers and activists he'd founded with Lee Hayes. As John Strausbaugh writes in The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village,
At various points Almanac House was home to Leadbelly, Alan Lomax, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Burl Ives, the actor and activist Will Geer, and Woody Guthrie. They staged hootenannies and charged thirty-five cents admission.

Later, Seeger would recall: "People came and went all the time. The cuisine was erratic but interesting, the furniture and decorations almost non-existent, the sleeping done at odd hours.... [But] the output of songs was phenomenal."

The term "hootenanny" entered the lexicon in 1946 as a gathering of folksingers; Seeger later wrote that he and Guthrie had brought the term east from Seattle. When the folk revival of the 1960s was in full steam, ABC television launched a television show, "Hootenanny," but blacklisted Pete Seeger for his connection to the American Communist Party and his contempt citation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. In turn, the vanguard of the second generation folk movement--Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio--all refused to appear on the ABC show, stripping it of its credibility.

By 1942, the Almanac Singers had moved out of 130 West 10th Street, finding the $100 a month rent too high. Various other buildings in the Village were associated with the group, but it splintered during the war, with Seeger going on to form the Weavers, which found great success in 1948 with "Goodnight, Irene," selling over 2 million copies.

If you are in the Village today, stop by West 10th Street and tip your cap to Pete Seeger--a true American legend.

Here's Seeger talking about the Almanac Singers in a 2006 interview:

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Read more about the Greenwich Village folk scene in

and don't forget our next book

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Postcard Thursday: Grant's Tomb

This great shot of Grant's Tomb is from sometime in the early twentieth century, and if you've toured with us, you may have seen this on our walk of Morningside Heights. (This scene has to be after 1907 due to the type of postcard, but we aren't car buffs -- can someone identify any makes or models?) As you can see in this picture, Riverside Park and Grant's Tomb were popular destinations for Sunday drives.

From its opening in 1897, Grant's Tomb became a magnet for tourists and New Yorkers alike who were coming not just to honor the memory of the great Civil War hero, but also to gawk at the country's largest presidential tomb. As we write in Inside the Apple:
Grant died in 1885, having lived the last four years of his life in New York. His tomb sits at 122nd Street and Riverside Drive, at one of the highest points in Riverside Park....[It is] a remarkable testament to the high esteem in which Grant was held after his death (despite two terms as president marked by scandal and perceived mediocrity) as well as to New York’s growing obsession in the 1890s with becoming the premiere American city. First, New York beat out other places Grant had lived—including Galena, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri—for the right to bury the president. Then, the Grant Memorial Association held two contests to determine who would design the structure, the second contest being held because none of the entries the first time around was deemed grand enough. The tomb, by John Duncan, is modeled on the mausoleum at Halicanarssus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In 1897, the tomb was officially opened and it fast became the leading tourist attraction in the city. Indeed, more people visited Grant’s Tomb in the early years of the Twentieth Century than went to the Statue of Liberty.
In the meantime, if you want to find out the answer to the old riddle, "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" you'll simply have to go check it out in person. The tomb is run by the National Park Service and is open for visitation.

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Read more about Grant's Tomb and Riverside Park in

and don't forget our next book

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Postcard Thursday: The Skyscrapers of New York

This 1908 postcard shows New York's early love affair with the skyscraper--and the the ongoing quest by developers to construct the tallest building in the world.

The tower on the left is the Park Row building, finished in 1899. Designed by R.H. Robertson, it held the title of world's tallest until the opening of the nearby Singer tower (center) in 1907.

This image doesn't do the Singer Building justice--we'll include some great images of it in a future Postcard Thursday. It was a singular building, designed by Ernest Flagg, and featured the same green-and-red color scheme as Flagg's earlier work for the sewing machine company in Soho.

If the Singer company had hoped that having the world's tallest building as their headquarters would be a good marketing tool, it didn't last long. However, it did last longer than this postcard implies. When this card was printed in 1908, the tower on the right, Metropolitan Life, wasn't actually finished. That tower opened in 1909 and was the world's tallest until the Woolworth Building was completed in 1913.

The Singer Building has a sad claim to fame--it's the tallest of all the buildings to claim the title of "World's Tallest" to have been torn down for another skyscraper. It came down in the late 1960s so that One Liberty Plaza could go up in its place. Though New York had already passed its landmarking laws, the Singer Tower had not yet been designated worthy of preservation and so fell to the wrecking ball.

However, the other buildings on this card are there to see: the Park Row Building houses J&R on Park Row and the Metropolitan Life Building on Madison Square is being converted into a hotel, which will open in 2015.

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Read more about the World's Tallest Building in

and don't forget our next book

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Happy Birthday, Howard Chandler Christy

On January 10, 1873, artist and illustrator Howard Chandler Christy was born in Ohio. While not a household name today, in the early twentieth century, Christy was one of New York's premiere artists.

With $300 in his pocket, Christy came to New York in 1890 to pursue a career as an artist. He enrolled at the Art Students League, where he studied under William Merritt Chase, both at the school and at Chase's home at the famed Tenth Street Studio in Greenwich Village.

Christy was soon earning his keep as a commercial illustrator, and when the brief Spanish-Ameican War broke out in 1898, he traveled to Cuba to cover the events for the New York papers. This somewhat pigeon-holed Christy as a "war" illustrator, which made him much in demand for recruitment and propaganda illustrations during World War I.

For many years, Christy lived at Hotel des Artistes, the Upper West Side residence designed for artists that was built following the success of the Tenth Street Studio and other artists' enclaves. Most of the studios in the hotel did not have kitchens, and artists were expected to dine together in the building's ground-floor restaurant. If the stories are true, Christy in the 1930s found himself in financial straits and unable to pay his restaurant tab. Instead, he bartered his services to decorate the Cafe des Artistes with thirty-six murals of scantily-clad nymphs. Those paintings, recently restored, are still on view at Cafe des Artistes's successor, The Leopard.

In his later years, Christy received his most important commission, a painting depicting the signing of the Constitution, which was installed in the House of Representatives in 1940. Christy died at Hotel des Artistes in 1952.

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Read more about New York and the Tenth Street Studio in

and don't forget our next book

Footprints in New York comes out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today.

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Look Back at the History of Gracie Mansion

Gracie Mansion today (photo by Carol M. Highsmith; courtesy of the Library of Congress)

James has a piece running today at Curbed, the #1 website for real estate and architectural history in New York. The story, "How Gracie Mansion Became New York's 'Little White House'" looks at Robert Moses and his quest to find an appropriate official mayoral residence for Fiorello La Guardia.

Take a look over at Curbed and let us know what you think:

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Robert Moses's effect on NYC is covered more in 

and our forthcoming book

Robert Moses and his epic battles with Jane Jacobs are a chapter in
Footprints in New York; the book is out April 15, 2014, but you can pre-order today.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Postcard Thursday: Central Park Gondola

Last week, when the weather was nicer, we posted a winter scene in Central Park; today, on the eve of a blizzard, here's the park in sunnier weather.

This view--more often seen in black and white than in color--shows the Central Park gondolier plying his trade on a crowded day in the late nineteenth century. (Look at how many people are standing on Bethesda Terrace.)

Central Park's original gondola was a gift of John A.C. Gray, a Central Park commissioner, in 1862. There's some confusion as to when it was first used: In 1864, a book of photographs and descriptions of the park by Fred B. Perkins and W.H. Guild, Jr., showed the gondola on the lake. However, five years later, in The Description of the New York Central Park, the first guidebook to the park, the author lamented that the gondola "is not used, because Mr. Gray did not...present the Commissioners with a Venetian gondolier to manage it!"

photo by WH Guild, Jr., from The Central Park (1864)

Certainly by the 1890s, gondola rides were a park attraction, especially at night, when visitors could be poled around the lake to look at the night sky.

Gray's original 1862 donation continued to be used in the park until the 1980s, when it was finally replaced by another authentically Venetian original. Today, gondola rides can be arranged at the Loeb boathouse.

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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.

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