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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Jackson Heights

This week, James had a story published by Curbed on the history and development of Jackson Heights, Queens. The neighborhood is modeled on the "Garden City" ideal first put forward by English thinker Ebenezer Howard.

Read the story at

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Seward's Folly

If you follow James on Instagram (which you can do at, you know that we recently traveled to Sitka, Alaska, where we took part in some of the kick-off events for the sesquicentennial of America's purchase of Alaska from the Russians. Many people called the purchase "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox," and questioned the wisdom of spending $7.2 million dollars for what was then considered useless, frozen land.

The purchase probably would never have happened without the guidance of Secretary of State William Seward, who was very nearly killed two years prior on April 14, 1865, as part of John Wilkes Booth's plan to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

One of our most popular blog posts of all time is about the attempt on Seward's life (which we liberally crib from below).

While Lincoln's death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth will likely always be remembered as one of America's most heinous crimes, it should be recalled that Booth and his conspirators had two other targets that night, as well: Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Even though General Robert E. Lee had already surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant--thus ending the Civil War--Booth reasoned that if they could kill the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State all on one night, the Union would be thrown into disarray. And, with no formal right of succession (which wouldn't be codified in the Constitution until after the Kennedy assassination; see last week's post), Booth might have had a point.

William Seward was Governor of New York from 1838-42 and Senator from 1848 until becoming Lincoln's Secretary of State in 1861. One of the founding members of the Republican Party, Seward had been many people's first choice to be nominated in 1860 and he received more votes on the first ballot than Lincoln. However, he did not have enough votes to gain the nomination outright and it was his eventual shift of support to Lincoln that guaranteed his rival the top spot on the Republican ticket in 1860.

The night that Lincoln was murdered, Seward was laid up in bed. He had been in a serious carriage accident just nine days earlier that had left him close to death. One of Booth's co-conspirators, Lewis Powell (aka Lewis Paine), talked his way into the Seward house pretending that he was delivering medicine. Stopped on the stairs by Seward's son, Frederick, Powell panicked, attacking Frederick and dashing into the Secretary of State's bedroom. He stabbed Seward multiple times, injured another of Seward's sons and his bodyguard, and retreated into the night thinking he had mortally wounded the Secretary of State. It was only after Powell was captured the next day that he discovered that Seward was still alive.

Seward went on to make a full recovery, continuing to serve as Secretary of State under Andrew Johnson, who was to have been assassinated that night by George Azerodt, but the would-be killer chickened out. It was in Johnson's cabinet that Seward championed the purchase of Alaska.

Note that in the newspaper below it points out that Seward and Lincoln were both assassinated. That's not a typo or "fake news." In the 19th century, the word "assassination" was often used to refer to both the successful and the unsuccessful murder of a political figure. That is, you could be assassinated and live, like Seward.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Postcard Thursday: John and Julia Tyler

On April 6, 1841, John Tyler became the first vice president to ever assume the presidency; his boss, William Henry Harrison, had died two days earlier just a month into office. (It has long been assumed that Harrison caught pneumonia while giving a lengthy inaugural address in the rain, though that theory has come under fire in recent years.)

The Constitution has no right of succession built in -- and would not have one until the ratification of the 25th Amendment in 1967 -- so Tyler's assumption of the presidency was not a foregone conclusion. Many thought of him as illegitimate throughout his four-year term and he was kicked out of his party, the Whigs, for not stepping aside.

But what does this have to do with New York City? Meet Tyler's second wife, Julia Gardiner, who he married while in office:

As we write in Inside the Apple:
Julia Gardiner was considered one of the most eligible young women in New York. A descendant of Lion Gardiner, one of the earliest English settlers on Long Island, she was both beautiful and astonishingly rich. Today, Gardiners Island off the east coast of Long Island is still the largest privately owned island in America. 
Julia was also clearly a rebellious and bored young woman. In 1840, she appeared in a handbill advertisement for Bogert & Mecamley, a dry goods store. Julia stands clutching a handbag that is actually a sign:

I’ll purchase at Bogert & Mecamley’s, number 86 Ninth Avenue. Their goods are beautiful and astonishingly cheap.

Julia’s family was horrified. Not only was she shilling for a middle-class department store while wearing a gaudy frock, she was doing it on the arm of a man who was not a male relative. Of all the social faux pas in Victorian New York, the unchaperoned female was high on the list. 
Julia was immediately sent to Europe to learn her social graces. Soon upon her return, she met President Tyler—who was less than five months a widower—and the two began an oblique romance. Within a few weeks, he had proposed to her. Julia demurred, but Tyler was not easily dissuaded. In February 1844, Tyler invited Julia and her father, David, to see the first demonstration of the U.S. Navy’s new twelve-inch gun, the “Peacemaker.” The gun exploded in the breech, killing four people—including David Gardiner—and further marking Tyler’s presidency for ignominy. 
Four months later, Julia and the President were married at a secret ceremony at the Church of the Ascension [on Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village], near the Gardiners’ New York City residence on Lafayette Place. Tyler was loath to tell his children about the wedding. His eldest daughter, Mary, was five years older than Julia, who was 24—and the President was himself only nine years older than Julia’s mother.
The new Mrs. Tyler would only be first lady for a few months, but would be a potent force in the Washington DC social scene during her time there.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Greetings from Heidelberg

Postcard Thursday is on a trip to Germany this week; we've been exploring Baden-W├╝rttemberg, the southern German state. Here's a couple of photos of Heidelberg, the famed university town with its mighty schloss (castle). Stay tuned next week for even more far-flung adventures.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Frank Lloyd Wright

We've had some glitched before with Postcard Thursday. Astute readers know that is sometimes appears as Postcard Friday, and there might have even been a Postcard Saturday once upon a time.

But Postcard Monday?

Mea culpa.

Today brings you a snowy scene of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Fallingwater, which James wrote about this week in The New York Post. Read all about how to construct your own Wright road trip at

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Great Theater Massacre of 1982

Yesterday, James had a piece in CurbedNY about the history of the Broadway theater district. The story focuses on five Broadway houses that were demolished in 1982 to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel, and wonders if that act of destruction was also part of what revitalized Times Square.

Read the story at

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Abraham Lincoln

Earlier this week, February 27, was the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's famed "Right Makes Might" speech at the Cooper Union. We've blogged about this event before (reprinted below) and the speech -- and Mathew Brady's famous photo of Lincoln -- are crucial parts of our Abraham Lincoln chapter in Footprints in New York.

Another image we talk about in that chapter is the one above that shows the moment of the president's death. (And is not reproduced in the book, alas.) As we write, the image
shows the president in repose at the lodging house across the street from Ford’s Theatre. The Lincolns and their friends, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, had gone to the theater on the night of his assassination to see Laura Keene—who Mary Todd Lincoln had enjoyed seeing in New York—in Our American Cousin
In the print, Robert and Mary Todd Lincoln bury their faces in hand- kerchiefs; young Tad Lincoln clings to his mother’s skirts. To one side, many members of Lincoln’s Cabinet look on. The demand for these prints—as well as scenes of Booth’s attack in the Lincolns’ box at Ford’s Theatre—was massive, and Currier & Ives went into overtime production... [and the images] was available for purchase a mere nine days after Lincoln’s death, an unheard of production schedule in 1865.

Rewind the story five years and we find a very different Abraham Lincoln--a small-town lawyer and sometime congressman trying to make a name for himself. 
On Monday, February 27, Lincoln woke [in Manhattan] to find the Republican-controlled newspapers stirring up anticipation for his speech. Some of his hosts, members of the Young Men’s Central Republic Union, called on Lincoln at the Astor Hotel, where they were embarrassed to find him disheveled, dressed in “a suit of black [that was] much wrinkled. . . . His form and manner were indeed very odd, and we thought him the most unprepossessing public man we had ever met.” 
Later that day, Lincoln headed up Broadway to Mathew Brady’s photography studio.... Brady and his assistants posed Lincoln standing, his right hand resting on a stack of books to show his erudition; behind him sits a classical pillar, a similar trope found in many formal portraits and statuary. 
After the photo was taken, Brady retouched it in the darkroom, including fixing Lincoln’s wandering left eye. He couldn’t, however, do anything to make his jacket fit any better—Lincoln’s right shirt cuff sticks out far beyond his sleeve—nor could he do anything to smooth out the future president’s wrinkled suit.
That evening, 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, today most commonly known as the Cooper Union Address, 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: LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.
While Cooper Union is still going strong, Mathew Brady's portrait studio where he shot the Lincoln portrait is long gone. However, if you find yourself in Tribeca, a building that housed another Brady studio still stands at 369 Broadway. There's no sign or marker, but it's worth taking a look next time you're in the neighborhood.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Postcard Thursday: 1866 Redux

Last July, James wrote a piece for Curbed about exploring modern-day New York City with a handful of 19th-century guidebooks as his only companions. The piece, "A Walking Tour of 1866 New York," has recently been nominated for an award for "Outstanding Achievement in NYC Essay/Article/Series Writing" by the Guides Association of New York City.

While we wait to see if he's won (winners will be announced March 6), here's the link to the story, a fascinating piece of time travel.

There's more history-minded journalism coming soon from James and Curbed, including a story about the Broadway Theater District and another time-travel feature. The best way to keep up on these things is to follow us on Facebook at or Twitter

Those guidebooks have some fabulous advertisements in them. Here's just one example:

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Rise and Fall of New Orange

This weekend marks a little remembered anniversary. On February 19, 1674, the Treaty of Westminster was signed, ending the Third Anglo-Dutch War. While most of that conflict took place in Europe, it did have a brief impact on New York City. Even though the colony of New Netherland had been taken over by the English ten years earlier, Manhattan was briefly held by the Dutch during the war and renamed New Orange.

In September 1664, Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company had surrendered to the English in a bloodless takeover. While the city changed its name from New Amsterdam to New York (in honor of its new patron, James, Duke of York), very little changed in the day-to-day lives of New Yorkers, and the city continued to have a distinct Dutch and Dutch-sympathizing population.

Thus, it wasn't that surprising that when war broke out between the English and Dutch in April 1672 that many New Yorkers favored the Dutch side. In July 1673, Dutch Admiral Cornelis Evertsen arrived in New York harbor and after a brief battle -- aided by New York's Dutch population -- was able to capture the fort at the southern tip of  Manhattan. (That fort, then called Fort James and originally built as Fort Amsterdam, stood on the site now occupied by the Museum of the American Indian.) In September 1673, Captain Anthony Colve arrived to be installed as governor of the colony, which had been renamed New Orange in honor of the Dutch royal family.

Less than four months later, the Treaty of Westminster formally ended the war and handed the colony back to English control. Colve stayed on through October 1674, when his replacement, Sir Edmund Andros, arrived. After a negotiation of the terms of the handover, Andros took over on November 10. The name of the colony reverted to New York, which it has remained ever since.

The image at the top, from the collection of the New York Public Library, purports to show New Orange as it appeared in 1673; however, the engraving was done in the 19th century and there's no corroborating evidence that it was sketched in 1673.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Snow Day

In honor of the snowstorm hitting New York City today, here are some photos from the New York Public Library's digital collection of snowstorms past. The photo above shows a stretch of Fifth Avenue ca. 1905 (the year the photo was printed) after a storm; unfortunately, there aren't enough revealing details to determine exactly where on the avenue this is.

This second card, from the same storm, shows Broadway between 29th and 30th Streets. The photographer was clearly drawn to the irony of the "Sarnoff Straw Hats" sign peeking out of a snow drift, but if you look just to the right of that you'll see the sign for Shanley's, which was a popular restaurant in that era. In operation from the 1890s to 1925, Shanley's was known as a "lobster palace," and a quick perusal of the menu makes it easy to see why: lobster appears in just about every possible preparation, along with oysters, other shellfish, and various unidentifiable dishes such as "cold corn starch."

This final photo may be from the same storm, but doesn't have an easily readable date. These children are sledding -- or "coasting" in the language of the day -- on a hill in Central Park.

Enjoy the snow and be careful out there!

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Postcard Thursday: From Imbolc to Candelmas to Groundhog Day

Today, Punxsutawney Phil, the world's most famous rodent, saw his shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of winter. Now, for anyone paying attention, March 21--the first day of spring--is six weeks away, whether a groundhog sees his shadow or not.

But how did this tradition begin?

Ancient traditions not only marked the beginnings of the seasons (vernal equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox, and winter solstice), but also the midpoint of each season. For winter, that is approximately February 1 or 2, which was known in ancient Ireland as Imbolc, a word which literally means "in the belly." It referred to the time around which ewes and rams would mate. The date is also 40 days after Christmas, which in the Christian tradition is celebrated as Candelmas, the commemoration of Jesus' presentation in the temple and the end of the Christmas/Epiphany season.

In northern Europe, Candelmas became the day when farmers would begin to predict whether or not there would be an early thaw. As one early poem put it, "If Candlemas day be dry and fair/The half o' winter to come and mair [more]."

We don't know exactly how this then transformed into small animals predicting the weather. In France it's a marmot; in Germany, the animal is traditionally a badger. By the 1840s, the groundhog had been attached to the holiday in the United States. Since 1887, the town of Punxsutawney, in Pennsylvania, has hosted groundhog festivities. As celebrations of Candelmas became less important in American life, Groundhog Day took its place. There are now many competing groundhog prognosticators, including Staten Island Chuck who--for the record--did NOT see his shadow, thus predicting an early spring.

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The Apollo Theater

On January 26, 1934, the Apollo Theater opened on 125th Street in Harlem. Though the building it was housed in was twenty years old, the new theater reflected the changing demographics of the neighborhood. Previously known as the Harlem Opera House, the theater had presented a long-running burlesque show to an all-white audience. With its rebirth as the Apollo, the space would now welcome black audiences and changing its programming accordingly.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The Apollo Theater, originally a whites-only burlesque house, reopened in 1934 with “Jazz a la Carte” and soon inaugurated its famed Amateur Night. One early winner, Ella Fitzgerald, became a fixture on the Harlem music scene with a regular gig at the Savoy Ballroom. By the mid-1930s, every prominent black musician in America—including Eubie Blake, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, and Dinah Washington—was performing in Harlem. Indeed, many of these musicians could perform nowhere else, as strict musicians’ union codes kept them from downtown theaters because of their race.

A major refurbishment in 1985 launched "Showtime at the Apollo" as a national television program; more recent renovations have restored the facade and interior to their 1930s glory.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Postcard Thursday: Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe! Born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Poe would, in his short life, become one of the most important American writers of all time. He invented the modern detective story, was an early champion of not just horror but science fiction, was a brilliant poet, and a cunning hoaxster.

Below are some highlights from posts we've done about Poe over the years. Of course, he also has an entire chapter in Footprints in New York, so pick up a copy today!

Edgar Allan Poe didn't live in New York City all that long, but he left an indelible stamp. Of all the places he lived, only one still survives, Poe Cottage in the Bronx. The postcard above depicts what is considered by many to be Poe's most important NYC residence -- the place where he wrote "The Raven."

As we write in Footprints in New York:
As [Poe's wife] Virginia’s tuberculosis worsened in 1844, the Poes took the only advice most doctors could give: move out of the city and get her into cleaner air.... [T]hey rented rooms from Patrick and Mary Brennan in “an old-fashioned, double-framed” farmhouse on the west side on what would eventually be 84th Street. The house was surrounded by 216 acres of woods. According to one of Poe’s earliest biographers, the family “received no visitors, and took their meals in their room by themselves.” Mrs. Brennan recalled Poe as a “shy, solitary, taciturn person, fond of rambling alone through the woods or of sitting on a favorite stump of a tree near the banks of the Hudson River.” In Poe’s era, Riverside Park had not been created, and the waterfront was not yet developed this far north. This meant Poe probably didn’t actually scramble all the way down the Hudson’s banks for his reveries; he watched the river drift by from the top of [a nearby outcropping of rock known as] Mount Tom.
courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York

The Poes’ room—unaltered until the house was torn down in 1888— was small but filled with light, having windows that faced the river on one side and the Brennans’ forest on the other. Years later, people who knew the house recollected that the Poes’ room was exactly like the chamber in “The Raven,” complete with the “pallid bust of Pallas” above the door. This may have been wishful thinking, but the house does seem, from photos and drawings, to have been a pleasant place. Pleasant enough, in retrospect, to make one almost forget the Poes’ straitened circumstances. Poe had difficulty making the rent. For much of his marriage, he had trouble putting food on the table. When Poe won a $225 judgment in a libel lawsuit, he used the money to buy some furnishings and a new suit; he could never afford to own more than one suit at a time, and the previous one was probably beyond repair.
Most inconveniently, the Brennan house’s distance from the city may have provided fresh air, but it also meant that any time Poe needed to meet with a publisher, he either had to take a stagecoach down the Bloomingdale Road—a costly inconvenience—or walk the ten miles round-trip.

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Poe Cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx; courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Poe Cottage, the third-oldest building in the Bronx, is open for visitors on weekends. If you want to travel farther afield, you can actually stay in a full-sized replica (above) of the house at the Dearborn Inn in Michigan.

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The morning of April 13, 1844, New Yorkers awoke to find an astonishing headline in the New York Sun:
The article went on to detail how Monck Mason and his traveling companions had set off from England in the gas-filled balloon Victoria and landed in Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, three days later. An amazing triumph, Monck's flight promised to revolutionize transportation and communication.

Of course, it wasn't true. Two days later, the Sun had to publish the following retraction:
The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England, the particulars of which from our correspondent we detailed in our Extra, we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous. The description of the Balloon and the voyage was written with a minuteness and scientific ability calculated to obtain credit everywhere, and was read with great pleasure and satisfaction. We by no means think such a project impossible. 
The hoax was the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Nine years earlier, the Sun had perpetrated the "Great Moon Hoax," and, as Matthew Goodman argues in his book The Sun and the Moon, Poe was annoyed at the newspaper for, in his mind, appropriating an idea from one of his own short stories for that series. The balloon hoax may have been Poe's way of getting back at the newspaper. If Poe is to be believed, the balloon hoax brought on a surge in sales for the Sun--and thus would have caused them great embarrassment when the story had to be retracted. (There's some thought that it was Poe who wrote the retraction, as well.)

The complete balloon hoax can be read online at
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