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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Postcard Thursday: The Cooper Union Address

Today, February 27, marks the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's famous 1860 Cooper Union Address (his "Right Makes Might" speech), which many credit with garnering him the Republican nomination in 1860.

The Cooper Union—depicted above in a postcard from ca. 1905—is a remarkable place. As we write in Inside the Apple:
Peter Cooper was one of the first generation of self-made men in America. In his early career, he was an apprentice coach maker and hat maker before moving on to earn his first fortune in glue. As he later commented: "I have always tried to do the best I know how, and then people have wanted what I made. I determined to make the best glue, and found out every method and ingredient looking to that end, and so it has always been in demand." 
In fact, Cooper was so determined to make the most out his factory that he figured out how to take a byproduct of the glue-making process and turn it into edible gelatin. (A few years later, a pharmacist would add cough syrup to the gelatin and give the world Jell-O.) 
Peter Cooper, sporting one
of the era's great beards.
The money Cooper made in the glue business allowed him to invest in an iron works (which later produced the first beams necessary for cast iron architecture.) He was hired by the Baltimore & Ohio railroad to design and build the first American-made steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb, which debuted in 1830. By the 1840s, Cooper was one of New York’s 25 millionaires, and he had done it all without the benefit of a formal education....In 1854, Cooper...endowed and built the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a free institution emphasizing engineering and practical arts. (It is notable that practical arts included painting and sculpture; the handsome sculpture of Cooper that sits in front of the building is by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a Cooper Union graduate.) The building went up at the junction of Third Avenue and the Bowery and contained a round elevator shaft—even though Elisha Otis had not yet installed any elevators—because Cooper felt that a round elevator would be the most efficient design. (The elevator shaft still peeks above the building like a chimney.) Using his own strong iron for the interior columns, Cooper also designed the single largest lecture space in the city, the Great Hall, which could accommodate over 2,000 people.
While you can't see the round elevator shaft in the above image, you can see, very vaguely, the Saint Gaudens statue in front of the building.

We take up the story in Footprints in New York:
[On February 27, 1860] Lincoln addressed a huge audience at Cooper Union... Industrialist and inventor Peter Cooper had built the school just a year earlier as a free institution of higher learning. The Great Hall remains one of the largest lecture halls in New York, and, as anticipated, Lincoln drew a standing-room crowd. 
The speech...was divided into three sections. In the first, Lincoln laid out a lawyerly argument that the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution—“our fathers who framed the Government under which we live,” he called them (quoting his antagonist, Senator Stephen Douglas)—were against the expansion of slavery. In the second section, Lincoln addressed Southerners directly, admonishing them for being the ones stirring up dissent:

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please. . . . You will rule or ruin in all events.
Lastly, speaking to the Republicans in the hall, Lincoln tried to hold to a moderate line. He was against slavery, but argued that “wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is” without allowing it to spread to the territories.  
Lincoln closed with the stirring lines that would soon be repeated in newspapers across the country—in all capital letters, as if he were shouting:

Though the Cooper Union itself still stands from Lincoln's era, much of the area has undergone radical transformation--and not all of it recent. In the 1870s, the Third Avenue El was built (in the postcard, it runs on the east side of the building), only to be torn down in the 1950s. Also, in place of the building at the far right of the postcard, Cooper Union constructed Thom Mayne's undulating academic building, just one of many modern structures remaking the Bowery. Of course, what has put Cooper Union more in the news recently is its decision, for the first time in its history, to begin charging tuition beginning with the 2014-2015 academic year.

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Read more about Abraham Lincoln and the Cooper Union Address in

and in our next book

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

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Postcard Thursday:

The Paramount Building, Times Square
Today's postcard is actually many postcards--we've completely revamped the website for our walking tours at, where each page is illustrated with a vintage card.

Even though the weather has been lousy lately, it's not too early to start thinking about scheduling a walking tour for the spring. For those who've taken walks with us before, we've recently added a Chelsea option if you are looking for something new, and many of the other tours have been modified to include stops that tie into our new book, Footprints in New York.

Check out the new site and let us know what you think!

Best wishes,
Michelle and James Nevius

Monday, February 17, 2014

President Arthur's Hasty Inauguration

Happy Presidents' Day!

While many United States presidents have called New York home over the years, only two were inaugurated in the city: George Washington in 1789 (when the city was still the American capital) and Chester A. Arthur, who took the oath in his home at 123 Lexington Avenue in Murray Hill.

A lawyer by training, Arthur had risen through the ranks of the Republican Party to become the Collector of the Port of New York, a job secured for him by powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling. When Rutherford B. Hayes became president in 1877, Arthur lost his patronage job—in part so that Hayes could show that he was cracking down on patronage positions. But in 1880, Arthur was tapped to be James A. Garfield’s running mate, and in March 1881, was sworn in as Vice President. (The presidential and vice presidential inauguration was still in March back then.)

Just four months after the inauguration, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled civil servant. Garfield lingered until September 19, when he finally succumbed to his wounds.

Word was immediately sent to Chester Arthur, who was at home in Murray Hill. In the middle of night, New York Supreme Court Justice John R. Brady was fetched to come to the Arthurs’ home and administer the oath of office. A second, more formal inauguration took place two days later in Washington, DC.; evidently, some in D.C. weren't convinced that Arthur's late-night swearing-in on Lexington Avenue was the real deal, so he was asked to take the oath again once he got to Washington.

After his one term in office—marked by distinct efforts at civil service reform—Arthur retired to his Lexington Avenue home where he died on November 18, 1886. The house at 123 Lexington still stands, but the only part you can visit is the ground-floor retail section, which is the Indian grocery store Kaluystan’s.

Arthur is commemorated with a statue in Madison Square Park, within easy walking distance of his former home. Also in the park is a statue of his one-time mentor, Roscoe Conkling, who's best known today for dying after getting stuck in a snow drift during the great Blizzard of 1888.

This post was adapted from an earlier article on Arthur in January 2009.

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Read more about New York and the presidency in

and don't forget our next book

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

Friday, February 14, 2014

A History of Complaining about Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day!

Every year, when February 14 rolls around, there's a rush to buy candy, flowers, and jewelry to commemorate the feast day of the various Saint Valentines (at least three early Christian martyrs bear that name). And every year, people complain about it. But perhaps you'll be happy to know that the tradition of kvetching about the holiday is a time-honored one.

As early as February 14, 1853, the New York Times was sighing about how the once pastoral and courtly traditions of Valentine's day had "vanished before the advancing tide of so-called civilization." In a lengthy piece commemorating the holiday, the Times editorialized that "Saint Valentine has emigrated from the fresh, fair country, and abides in dull, fevered cities." (Presumably New York in 1853 was just such a "dull, fevered" city.)

The Times went on to criticize the "namby pamby" verses of modern valentines -- and their expense. "Thousands of dollars are annually expended in the United States on their purchase.... Every store at all connected with the stationary [sic] business has been blazing for the last week with pictures of hideous men and women...each with some lines of doggrel [sic] written underneath them." (Did the Times not have copy editors in 1853?)

At the American Valentine Company's offices on Nassau Street, the Times's author is shown elaborate valentines in boxes "possessing so many secret folds and unexpected disclosures of Cupids and verses and wreaths of impossible flowers" that it would take "a half hour to open and an hour to shut." Though some valentines cost as little as six cents, others--in ornate boxes--were priced as high as $130. In 1853, when an average laborer made just a dollar a day, this was an incredible sum.

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Read more about New York in 1853 in

and don't forget our next book

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

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Postcard Thursday: Rockefeller Center's Lost Opera House

Happy World Radio Day!

In honor of this holiday, here are a couple of pictures of the original "Radio City," Rockefeller Center.

Notice the difference between these two shots? The top postcard depicts Rockefeller Center before it had even been built. The low building in the foreground had originally been designed to be the home of the Metropolitan Opera, the anchor tenant of the center. The building -- known somewhat affectionately as the "hatbox" -- was to have been a state-of-the-art theater, replacing the opera company's outmoded and cramped headquarters on Broadway just south of Times Square. However, internal struggles at the Metropolitan Opera, where the building and the performance company had separate boards of directors, squashed the deal. The Met would not find a new home for another three decades, when its current theater at Lincoln Center went up.

When the deal between the center and the opera company fell apart, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had to scramble to find a replacement, ultimately choosing RCA, whose broadcasting arm, NBC, is still headquartered there today. This top postcard must have been produced sometime between the time the opera pulled out -- since it is labeled "Radio City," a nod to NBC's primary mode of broadcasting in those days -- but before the hatbox was removed from the plans.

The second postcard depicts the center as actually built. At the front are two of the center's international buildings, La Maison Francaise and the British Empire Building. These two short office towers are one of the topics of our Rockfeller chapter in Footprints in New York.

* * * *
Read more about Rockefeller Center in

and don't forget our next book

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

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Postcard Thursday: The Dorilton

Here's a charming shot of the Dorilton (171 West 71st Street), probably taken not long after its completion in 1902. Like the nearby Ansonia, the Dorilton was built to draw wealthy New Yorkers uptown in anticipation of the completion of the first subway line, the IRT (today's 1/2/3 trains). The fact that the 72nd Street station was going to be the first express stop on the Upper West Side made the Dorilton's location particularly enticing. It would be one express stop down to Times Square, two to Grand Central, and three to Union Square. (In those days, the IRT cut across 42nd Street and headed south from Grand Central along the 4/5/6 tracks.)

Not everyone was a fan of the Dorilton's overblown French Second Empire style. The Architectural Record complained that it was so ugly it would "make strong men swear and weak women shrink affrighted."

Also: what's with the inscription on the postcard? "Ed that little baby you sent me was just simply fine. Mary E." Hmmm.

* * * *
Read more about building of the first subway and New York's
luxury apartment buildings in

and don't forget our next book

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

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