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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Grand Central Terminal

The above advertisement for Grand Central Terminal, produced in 1918, shows the area around Park Avenue and 42nd Street before most of the current skyscrapers were built. (You can see the Yale Club, which James wrote about for Curbed a couple of years ago, on the Vanderbilt Avenue side of the terminal; it opened in 1915.)

On the right side of the flyers is a partial list of some of the "unusual features" that set Grand Central apart from its competitors:

Indeed, this novel system of moving pedestrians around the terminal was a great contrast to the deep staircases at Penn Station. It was later adopted both by other railroad stations and classic airport terminals, such as the TWA terminal by Eero Saarinen at JFK.

Commodore Vanderbilt's original impetus to put Grand Central Station on 42nd Street was a New York City ordinance that forbade steam locomotives traveling farther south. Before 1871, teams of horses were hitched to passenger cars and the carriages were hauled down to the depot farther downtown. Vanderbilt rightly surmised that if the terminal was moved to 42nd, the city would ultimately come to him. By 1918, theaters had moved to Times Square and the IRT subway connected downtown to the Upper West Side via 42nd Street (and a stop beneath Grand Central), making the street the most important in the city.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Postcard Thursday Redux: Happy Birthday, 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 Yorkso 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

(If this post seems familiar, it is; it is largely a repeat of our post from last year on Poe's birthday.)

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Postcard Thursday: Skyrise for Harlem

Skyrise for Harlem; Esquire magazine, April 1965
There's a terrific exhibit at the Queens Museum called "Never Built New York," that features dozens of plans for unbuilt architecture that would have remade the city. (The show only runs through February 18, so catch it while you can.)

When we were visiting the show in October, we were struck by the plan from 1965 to tear down much of Harlem and replace it with giant, 100-story towers (seen above). James researched the subject further and his essay on "Skyrise for Harlem" appeared yesterday in Curbed NY. The story not only outlines the plan -- which architect Buckminster Fuller created with writer June Jordan -- but also looks at how Harlem real estate transformed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

You can read the story here:

From the ARCH/CAEHT plan for the East Harlem Triangle redevelopment; from the Louisiana State University archives

Fuller and Jordan weren't the only planners who were trying to figure out how to improve housing conditions in Harlem in the 1960s. The drawing above is from the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem's suggested plan for the rezoning of the East Harlem Triangle. As James notes in his article:
In 1964, the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem (ARCH) was founded to serve, in the words of architectural historian Brian D. Goldstein, as a “community design center” but then transformed—as the influence of black nationalism became more prominent in Harlem’s political life—into a way to “resist and revise official urban development plans".... Take, for example, the ARCH proposal for the East Harlem Triangle redevelopment.... The city’s plan was to turn the area—the triangle bounded by Madison Avenue, 125th Street, and the Harlem River—into an industrial zone. Pushback from the newly formed Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle (CAEHT) convinced the city to consider alternate proposals. Working with CAEHT, the planners at ARCH, led by its director, African-American architect J. Max Bond Jr., produced a plan that would not only radically transform the East Harlem Triangle, but would create a “distinctively black and democratic urban space.” 
As opposed to “Skyrise for Harlem,” the East Harlem Triangle plan advocated the preservation of newer townhouses and tenements, while new construction would preserve “positive features of the present living patterns".... On a reconfigured 125th Street, most of the traffic is eliminated in favor of wide sidewalks and tree-lined medians with bench seating. Typical examples from the urban planning wishlist are present, like a dedicated lane for bus traffic, while very specific symbols of Harlem abound: the bus boasts an ad for Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam. A man in a dashiki stands in the median, while a woman on the sidewalk raises a black power salute.
The Queens Museum panorama, with some of the Fuller/Jordan Skyrise towers superimposed over Harlem

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Speaking of Curbed, three of James's pieces were singled out for the "Best of 2017" lists for both the local and national sites this year:

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Postcard Thursday: The Frozen Hudson

As you hunker down for the "bomb cyclone" bringing snow and cold temperatures to New York City, here's a look back at what the city was suffering through exactly 100 years ago.

The painting above, by American impressionist Eliot Candee Clark, shows the icy Hudson River in January 1918. In fact, the winter was so cold that year that both the Harlem and Hudson Rivers had frozen solid.

As the New York Sun pointed out in its lead story on January 4, 1918, under the headline "COAL FOR CITY NOW TIED UP BY ICE IN HARBOR," the city was facing down a real crisis.

Found on
"The fight to get coal to this city -- just enough coal to supply the bare necessities of industry and the homes -- has become a fight against ice. For the next forty-eight hours at least it will be a grim and grinding struggle, with nature piling up the odds against the coal samaritans."
The story goes on to note that the "Hudson River is solid ice down to 200th Street" and the "Harlem River is a glacier to 140th Street...." Exacerbating the problem was the fact that big tug boats had been requisitioned by the government for the war effort, leaving the city with "ice breaking facilities ridiculously limited for a port of this size and importance...."

The rival New-York Tribune noted that 31 public schools were closed due to the coal shortage and that many people had turned to kerosene as the coal ran out, but that, too, was quickly being depleted. Compounding the problem of no heat was the issue of frozen water pipes. As the Tribune reported, Hoboken, New Jersey's "water supply failed completely" and "not a drop of water came from any hydrant" for hours.

The next day, the Sun reported that railroad tugs had broken through the ice, liberating 50,000 tons of fuel that was waiting outside the harbor. As the temperature ticked up a few degrees on January 6, coal was being distributed throughout the city, alleviating the immediate crisis.

Still, they weren't out of the woods: the winter of 1917-18 would go down as one of the coldest on books in many parts of the northeast, remaining unchallenged.... until this year, which could unseat the century-old record.


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