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Last Chance to Save 35 Cooper Square

February 6th, 2011 by DavidFreeland
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35 Cooper Square, one of the oldest surviving houses on the upper portion of the Bowery (c. 1825), is in imminent danger of destruction.  Scaffolding – often seen as a prelude to demolition – is up, and the Asian restaurant occupying the ground floor has closed.

Photo Credit: Scouting NY

The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors, leading the fight to protect 35 Cooper Square, has suggestions on what you can do to help preserve this charming structure with a rich history that parallels the larger growth of early 19th century New York.  Please click on the links below, and join in if you can!

http://www.boweryalliance.org/

http://www.thevillager.com/villager_406/coopersq.html

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A Tour of Brownsville, Brooklyn’s Jewish Past

September 26th, 2010 by DavidFreeland
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Yesterday afternoon, a hot one here in the city, I was inspired to take a trip out to Brownsville, Brooklyn, once a hub of Jewish cultural life and now considered one of the most dangerous sections of New York.

Former Synagogue in Brownsville (note Star of David at top)

I was thinking of my late friend, George Sandler (father of my friend Rita), who was born in Brownsville in 1916 and grew up in the neighborhood.  While aware that many of Brownsville’s storied tenements were razed for public housing projects beginning in the 1950s, I was curious to see what might be left, in a physical sense, of Brownsville’s Jewish history.  Urban renewal seems to have impacted New York in a less overarching way than it did other U.S. cities, and, as it turns out, Brownsville still bears traces of its past.

I started with the old Loew’s Pitkin Theater on eponymous Pitkin Avenue, Brownsville’s commercial artery.  Opened in 1929, the Pitkin bears a remarkable similarity to the slightly later Loew’s 175th Street Theater in Manhattan’s Washington Heights.  George remembered coming to the Pitkin as a teenager, and, according to a 1932 New York Times account, the great Yiddish composer, Rumshinsky,  appeared here for a week’s engagement.  Outside the theater, a sign hints at plans for some sort of revitalization.

According to a 1951 book in my library on Murder, Inc., the infamous crime syndicate which grew in part out of Brownsville, “neighbors firmly believe Pitkin Avenue compares with Fifth Avenue…or any other promenade famed for its shops and shopping.”  Today, there is still much to be seen on Pitkin, including this terra cotta beauty.  It was once the Simon Ackerman department store.

And while we’re on the subject of gangsters, here’s a shot of Amboy Street, after which the notorious “Amboy Dukes” were named.

Amboy Street, home of the “Amboy Dukes”

While often cited as being a “fictitious” gang, George Sandler and others have claimed the Amboy Dukes were real.  In fact, as children George and some friends once got stuck in the Amboys’ clubhouse.  To frighten him into keeping quiet about what he might have heard, the Amboys smeared rotten eggs over his head!

Lovers of old signs will find much to savor in this remnant of what was probably a Chinese restaurant, on Pitkin.

Neon Survivor

Meanwhile, those interested in 1930s Deco will appreciate this Art Moderne-styled bank building, with Federalist touches.

Art Moderne Bank on Pitkin

I ended my tour beside the Pitkin Theater at “Zion Triangle,” a small park dedicated to Jewish veterans of the First World War.

Zion Triangle

“There were no subways at that particular time,” George once told me.  “If there were, our part of the area didn’t use them”  Instead, George explained, trolley cars supplied Brownsville residents with their primary form of transportation.  Visiting Brownsville yesterday, I came to understand George’s assertion.  Even now, the neighborhood feels removed from the rest of the city, and I needed to walk many blocks before coming to an A train.  And, of course, the A was not completed until the early 1930s, well past George’s childhood.

With its capacity for outliving the humans who create it, architecture can bring back the verve and spirit of a place in ways a mere historical plaque cannot.  After yesterday I feel more in touch with George’s personal history, and, as a New Yorker, a piece of my own.

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UPDATE: July 18, 2015

Roger Elowitz has kindly shared some Brownsville images from his personal collection. I am posting them here. Captions are from Roger. Enjoy! David

Kishke King

Kishke King

Pitkin Avenue looking toward Hopkinson Ave.

Pitkin Avenue looking toward Hopkinson Ave.

Skateboard scooters

Skateboard scooters

The Kinish Man... with obligatory salt shaker.

The Kinish Man… with obligatory salt shaker.

Thomas Jefferson H.S

Thomas Jefferson H.S

 

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UPDATE January 31, 2017

One of our readers, Sonny Crane, sent in this photo of his family’s potato chip stand in Brownsville.  Maybe some of you will remember it.  Either way, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the photo.  David

Crane's

 

 

 

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Gallagher’s and Evelyn Nesbit

September 4th, 2010 by DavidFreeland
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There aren’t a lot of old buildings left in Times Square, but the few remnants of 19th century architecture that have managed to survive conceal a wealth of entertainment history (see my last post about Helen Morgan’s club on 54th Street).  Walking along Broadway the other day, I passed Gallagher’s Steakhouse at 228 West 52nd Street and stopped to admire the heft and solidity of the townhouse it has occupied since the late 1920s.

Gallagher’s Steakhouse, 2010

Gallagher’s has been around so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when its neon sign wasn’t an indelible part of the Rialto landscape.  But I knew that, given the building’s age (according the NYC Department of Buildings, its construction permit was issued in 1874), it must hold some secrets.  What was it before Gallagher’s?

For the answer, we need to go back to the years just after the turn of the 20th century.  In October of 1904 Harry K. Thaw, young Pittsburgh millionaire, was rumored to have eloped to London with a chorus performer and artists’ model, Evelyn Nesbit.  Nesbit, who modeled for Charles Gibson’s famous drawing, “The Eternal Question,” possessed the kind of beauty guaranteed to inspire admiration in any age.  The pure symmetry of her features appears wholly contemporary, and if she were around today no doubt she would be just as celebrated.

Evelyn Nesbit, early 1900s

Despite the initial opposition of Thaw’s family, the two were later married in an official ceremony in Pittsburgh.  But Nesbit’s past romantic association with the ruggedly masculine Stanford White, celebrated architect (the two had met while Nesbit was performing in Floradora at the Casino Theater in 1901), grew to obsess the unstable Thaw.  What happened next is known to even the most casual followers of New York history: on the evening of June 26, 1906, Thaw shot and killed White at Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theater (which White had designed), in the middle of a song entitled, “I Could Love a Million Girls.”  During the trial that followed, details of Evelyn’s involvement with White, including putative sexual escapades on a swing in White’s 24th Street love nest, made her the heroine of the century’s first American sex scandal.  Forever after Evelyn Nesbit would become known as “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.”

Despite promises of a healthy settlement, Evelyn got nothing after her subsequent divorce from Thaw.  She continued to perform, struggling for a career in movies and nightclubs, and by the 1920s was described by writer Stanley Walker (in his book, The Night Club Era) as “a tired, nervous little woman trying to make a go of a tearoom just off Broadway in the West Fifties.”  I am always skeptical of these kinds of pronouncements, especially when they fit so neatly into the “fallen woman” narrative which figures like Nesbit seem to inspire.  Perhaps she felt bitter, and no doubt her stability was hampered by suicide attempts and bouts with drug addiction, but nevertheless she must have retained enough charm and personality to function as a nightlife hostess – no easy job in those days of Prohibition.

Harry K. Thaw and Stanford White

This brings us back to our earlier question.  Where exactly was “Chez Evelyn,” Nesbit’s nightclub, located?  That’s right – 228 West 52nd Street, in the same building as the present-day Gallagher’s.  In November of 1927 the New York Times reported that Thaw made an appearance at the club, causing a scene in which he “violently pounded the table and swept from it all the bottles and glasses to the floor.”  Later Nesbit described it as “one of Harry’s mild tantrums.”  A side note here is that Walker’s characterization of the place as a “tearoom” is almost certainly inaccurate.  During the same article, Evelyn cites the size of the check (which, apparently, caused Thaw’s outburst), as “somewhere between $200 and $250.”  “Speakeasy” is more like it.

Like the building at 228 West 52nd Street, Evelyn Nesbit survived.  Later she became a ceramics teacher in California, and even moved for a time back into the spotlight when she was hired as a “technical consultant” for the fictionalized 1955 movie account of the scandal, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, starring Joan Collins.

Evelyn Nesbit and Joan Collins in 1955

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A Remnant of Speakeasy Days on West 54th Street

June 11th, 2010 by DavidFreeland
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Again I’m offering apologies for going so long without a new post.  I have been busy preparing for book lectures and signings, leading seminars and walking tours (including one last Tuesday for NYU that was great fun), and thinking about new ways to look at and learn from this complicated but fascinating city of ours.  But there are two midtown buildings, sitting side by side, that have been on my mind now for some months.

54th Street west of Broadway

They sit just west of Broadway on a bedraggled stretch of 54th Street.  A large portion of the block’s northern side on the opposite Eighth Avenue end has been demolished for what I can only presume will be another high rise – but who knows when that will ever get built.  These days the only thing we’re guaranteed when a building is torn down is an empty lot.  The building on the left looks like it may have been an old automobile showroom (there was a time when this section of Broadway was lined with such showrooms).  While rundown, it retains much architectural detail, including a lovely row of pilasters along the fourth story.  Not long ago this building and its immediate neighbor to the east looked as if they were slated for demolition; then, the real estate bubble burst.  Last month I noticed a “for sale” sign in its window, touting it as an “architecturally distinctive” property.  I guess we shouldn’t gripe – we’ll take preservation any way we can find it, right?

But it’s that building to the immediate east (231 West 54th) that has really captured my attention.  Here is a closer look:

231 West 54th Street

Intrigued by the colored window panes on the third floor, and by what appears to be a rooftop extension, I did a little research and discovered it was once home to the Fifty-Fourth Street Club, a 1920s speakeasy run by Helen Morgan, the great “torch singer” whose tragic life epitomized the giddy excesses of the Prohibition years and the tough, lean times that followed.

Helen Morgan

As a nightlife fixture Morgan was peripatetic, and after the Fifty-Fourth Street Club was padlocked for violation of Prohibition laws in February of 1927, she moved to a different location.  231 West 54th, meanwhile, was converted into the Chateau Madrid, later known as one of the fabled nightclubs of the Roaring Twenties.  One morning in October of 1928, Joey Noe, a close associate of bootlegger/gangster Dutch Schultz, was gunned down in front of the club, with the Times reporting that the shots were “fired from the windows.”  Schultz was believed to have blamed his arch-rival, Legs Diamond, for the shooting, and was said to have ordered the killing of crime kingpin Arnold Rothstein in retaliation.

Dutch Schultz

231 West 54th Street’s association with entertainment did not end with the repeal of Prohibition.  By 1935, it was operating as Dan Healy’s Broadway Room, with music by the orchestra of Joe Venuti, described by jazz historian Scott Yanow as “improvised music’s first great violinist.”  More recently the building was used as an XXX-rated video parlor and lingerie store.  Perhaps, it can be hoped, future plans will include a return to the music and entertainment for which it was once known.

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The Heights Theater

March 20th, 2010 by DavidFreeland
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It’s been a while since my last post, mostly because I’ve been occupied with a move to a new apartment and neighborhood.  The neighborhood is one I expect to be writing about on Gotham Lost & Found in the months to come.  It’s a sliver of upper Manhattan perched above the banks of the Hudson in the West 180s and lower 190s, filled with wonderful Art Deco apartment houses, expansive parks and small family-owned businesses – many of which, like Gideon’s bakery, have been here for decades.  Once the enclave was known as Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson, on account of the German-speaking Jewish population who called it home during the 1930s and 40s.  Elements of that old-world culture remain, but the area is now being changed somewhat by an influx of younger people – migrants from the Upper West Side and points to the south.

One of the nice points about living here is that it has given me a chance to explore other sections of uptown Manhattan nearby.  Coinciding with this development was my receipt of an inquiry from reader Adrian Allen, who wrote about “a building on Wadsworth Av. between 180 & 181 St.”  Adrian wrote a nice description of the exterior:

The building appears to be an old movie theater or a vaudeville house. On the facade are several “gargoyles” with different facial expressions. The building also has an imprint of a marquee. It is now a clothing store. Please check this building out. It is totally amazing!

I took Adrian’s suggestion and went to the site, located not far from the massive RKO Coliseum movie palace on 181st; the facade is indeed striking:

Heights Theater

It turns out that this building was in fact built as a movie theater, the Heights, which opened in the fall of 1913.  According to my friend Thomas Rinaldi, who wrote a fascinating paper on another of the neighborhood’s surviving old theaters, the Empress (which still contains its original pipe organ!), the Heights’ location was significant: “A middle class neighborhood, Washington Heights was well-suited as a proving ground for the growing film industry, whose strategy was to provide inexpensive entertainment to a mass market.”  By the 1920s, Tom writes, at least five motion picture theaters had opened in the area; most have survived (albeit in altered form) into the present day.

Tom was also kind enough to provide me with a copy of Motion Picture News from 1913, which gives a description of the new Heights’ interior:

The “Heights” theatre is devoted to high-class motion pictures exclusively.  They are projected on a gold fibre screen and are accompanied by one of the Wurlitzer Unit orchestras.  The auditorium is lighted with the indirect lighting system and no side lights on the walls to shine in the eyes of the audience.  Six hundred of the most comfortable seats, carpets in the aisles, brass railings, etc., complete the arrangements of the auditorium.

As Tom emphasizes so well in his paper, the Heights’s history is inextricable from that of its neighborhood.  In later years, it showcased foreign and art films (including Tosca, in 1956), then, by the early 1980s, xxx-rated features.  Today it houses a shoe store.  Whatever is left of the original interior is hidden behind drop ceilings, but outside the decorative work remains intact.  Here’s a closeup:

Heights Theater 2

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A Small But Important Boost for Tin Pan Alley

January 19th, 2010 by DavidFreeland
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There is a bit of good news for those of us concerned about development threats to the 19th century row houses that once constituted Tin Pan Alley on West 28th Street, the birthplace of the American popular music industry.  These threats have been reported upon extensively during the past year and a half, in my book, on Lost City, Curbed and other websites, and by the Historic Districts Council.  The impending sale of several of Tin Pan Alley’s buildings wound up being forestalled by the real estate market’s downturn; otherwise, preservation efforts have lacked the kind of high-profile public support they’ve needed to really get momentum going.

Tin Pan Alley around the turn of the 20th century, courtesy of Getty Images

Tin Pan Alley around the turn of the 20th century, courtesy of Getty Images

Fortunately, historians and preservationists may now have more time to make their case.  My friend, tenants rights lawyer Robert Petrucci, who has been representing tenants in the West 28th Street buildings for a number of years, tells me that he has just received a favorable recommendation in his effort to establish the four buildings from 49 to 55 West 28th Street (which, incidentally, are among the most historically significant of Tin Pan Alley’s surviving edifices) as a single unit.  In a report dated January 15, 2010, Administrative Law Judge John B. Spooner explains the reasons for his recommendation:

“Constructed as townhouses in the 1860s, the four buildings have been under common ownership since 1903…Based upon the overwhelming number of factors establishing that the four buildings have been owned and operated together for over a hundred years, I find that the four buildings constitute a single horizontal multiple dwelling.”

Judge Spooner cites a number of features, among them a common fire escape and boiler, along with cellar openings between 49 and 51, in support of his decision.  Petrucci explains that the findings will still need to be adopted by the NYC Loft Board, but that in these kinds of cases “acceptance is the norm.”  What this means is that it would now be “very difficult,” according to Petrucci, for the individual buildings to be developed separately.  That, in addition to the fact that a portion of the lot upon which number 49 sits is still designated as M1-6, for manufacturing use (the now-famous 1995 rezoning which opened the area up to commercial/residential use only extends for a specific number of feet from Sixth Avenue), signifies an impediment to prospective developers.

Not the overarching victory we’ll need in the long run, but nonetheless an important development that may help vouchsafe the immediate security of the place where a teenage Irving Berlin worked as a song plugger, and where popular music came into its own as a marketable, hit-making force.

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Williamsburg(h), Brooklyn

December 15th, 2009 by DavidFreeland
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Did you know Williamsburg used to have an “h”?

Williamsburgh 1

Original Williamsburgh Savings Bank Headquarters at 175 Broadway (Source: Flickr)

This week’s entry will be a cross-post with Untapped New York, a fascinating and informative blog run by architectural historian and musician Michelle Young.  On a recent afternoon, Michelle and I trekked across the river to the Marcy Avenue subway station (J/M/Z line) in Brooklyn, our starting point for an exploration of Williamsburg, one of Gotham’s most diverse and intriguing neighborhoods.  New York City’s toponymological evolution can often be traced in the design of its buildings; and today, specifically, we were looking for physical signs of Williamsburg’s original 19th-century spelling: “Williamsburgh.”

dime-bank

Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh (Photos by Michelle Young)

Our first stop was the Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh (at the corner of S. 5th and Havemeyer Streets), a solid-looking Greek revival edifice whose frieze, set above a line of Corinthian columns, is inscribed with the bank’s full title – including the final “h.”  Across the park at 175 Broadway is the domed Renaissance-inspired HSBC Bank, the original headquarters of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank built in 1870-75.  The landmarked building fortunately preserves some of the original signage.  According to most historical accounts, the “h” was dropped after Williamsburg became consolidated with Brooklyn in April of 1854.  One of the more interesting footnotes unearthed during research for this post was the argument, expressed by an editorialist in the Brooklyn Eagle of June 6, 1853, that with consolidation, “we should also be much better able to stand against the oppressive measures of the big city over the river.”  Of course, all of Brooklyn was eventually incorporated into that city, in 1898.

Brooklyn Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library (Photo by Michelle Young)

Making our way past 1930s housing developments and 19th-century row houses (a few of which were being replaced, evidently for new construction), we landed at the Williamsburg branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (built in 1903 at Division and Marcy Avenues), where the original “h” is again preserved in the building’s design, in a frieze above the main entrance.  The book stacks inside the library are arranged radially in a semi-circle, filling a large bay window, and include many titles in Yiddish (which is spoken by the Satmar Hasidim who comprise one of the neighborhood’s most populous social groups).  Outside Michelle took a few photos of the imposing Classical Revival facade, but was then stopped by a security guard.  I was reminded of the many insidious ways in which New York has become a city of “don’ts.”  Few of these proscriptions make any logical sense; they stifle the expressive freedoms for which New York has always been known.  After pointing out to the guard that there is no law preventing buildings being photographed from the outside, we moved on.

Williamsburgh Street

Williamsburg(h) Street. (Photo by Michelle Young)

If “Williamsburgh” did indeed become “Williamsburg” after consolidation, evidence suggests that the two spellings were used interchangeably for a long time.  Even today, an “h” will sometimes appear in printed references to the neighborhood.  This confusion was made manifest as we strolled along Williamsburg Street, half of which seems to have been lost to the expressway which runs parallel to it.  A street sign announcing “Williamsburg St” sat one block away from one that proclaimed “Williamsburgh St”; the signs appeared to be about the same age, of relatively recent design and placement.  If “Williamsburgh” has indeed been removed from the New York lexicon, it is having a serious case of departure anxiety.

williamsburgh1

Williamsburgh Savings Bank (Photos by Michelle Young and Jake Dobkin, top left, bottom right)

We ended our tour at the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower near the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) downtown, for the documentation of one final “h” (above the central arch) and a view of some exquisite tile mosaics in the lobby.  Still the tallest building in Brooklyn, the tower’s landmark status helps ensure that “Williamsburgh” will not disappear any time soon.  It is currently being converted into condos, which despite anti-gentrification proponents, is sometimes a way to preserve historical architecture – in this case, 63 ft vaulted ceilings, marble interiors and 40 ft ornamented windows.  And in the tradition of the preservation, this building did not generate any media or internet presence until after 2007, when it closed and was sold to developers.

savings-bank-2

Williamsburgh Savings Bank Facade and Mosaic (Photos by Michelle Young)

How to Get There:
Dime Savings Bank J/M/Z Subway to Marcy Avenue

Williamsburgh Savings Bank 2/3/4/5/B/D/M/N/Q/R Subway to Atlantic-Pacific

Special thanks to Jake Dobkin for usage of his beautiful nyc photography from www.bluejake.com

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East Harlem Theaters, Part 2: The Cosmo

November 27th, 2009 by DavidFreeland
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East 116th Street in “El Barrio,” East Harlem, is one of my favorite Manhattan thoroughfares because of the life that seems to pulse from every storefront and window.  A sign jutting from a row of stately 19th century townhouses advertises “Lupe, Spritualist Reader & Advisor,” who is also described as a “profesora en espiritismo.”  Dental offices proclaim extractions and other services offered “con gas,” while the steady heartbeat of salsa and Latin jazz emanates from glass-fronted record shops, filling the streets with music.

Architecturally there is much here to admire, including this lovely old theater (now Regine’s clothing shop) at number 176.

DSC04699

I’ve passed this theater a number of times and have longed to investigate its history.  My first stop, after taking this photo this morning, was to visit cinematreasures, which can always be counted on for well-researched information.  According to the site, Regine’s was once the Cosmo, a venue for not just Spanish-language films but (like the Campoamor Theater profiled in an earlier Gotham Lost and Found post) live performance as well.  In fact, one Cinema Treasures contributor recalls seeing great Latin artists such as Celia Cruz and Tito Puente here, some time before they crossed over to a wider public and began performing at larger venues such as Radio City Music Hall.  As we’ve seen with so many of New York’s performance spaces, the Cosmo resonated with the culture and spirit of the community that surrounded it.

My next step in researching the Cosmo was the page for 176 East 116th Street on the NYC Department of Buildings’ Building Information System.  According to the “NB” (for “new building”) entry there, the permit for the theater was applied for in 1920, which means that the building would have been completed by 1921 or 1922 (and a certificate of occupancy, also available for viewing on the site, dated January 1922, confirms this).  A perusal through the New York Times historical archive (not free, I’m afraid) reveals something of a tumultuous history, including a fire, two robberies (including one in which the thieves used acetylene torches to melt the burglar-proof safe), and a shooting within its first two decades of existence.  According to Cinema Treasures, the theater continued to show action and Spanish-language movies until it closed during the middle 1980s.

Today nothing of the interior is visible, although I suspect that some original decoration survives beneath the expansive dropped ceilings.  The facade remains extremely well-preserved, as can be seen in this photo:

DSC04702

We’ll continue our exploration of East Harlem’s theaters within the coming weeks!

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A Halloween Special

October 31st, 2009 by DavidFreeland
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Dear Gotham Lost and Found readers,

This week I’m linking to a post I’ve written for my publisher NYU Press’ blog, From the Square, regarding some rather mischievous ghosts from 19th-century Gotham.

You can read the ghost story here.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

David

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West 29th Street Underground Railroad Stop Wins Landmark Designation

October 13th, 2009 by DavidFreeland
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Here’s a really inspiring story: Late this afternoon, the Landmarks Commission approved the designation of the Lamartine Place Historic District, a short row of West 29th Street houses, one of which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad (I found the photo below at the Bay Ridge Journal blog).

Lamartine Place

This is a designation that came solely as a result of community activism and persistence, and serves as proof that our efforts really can make a difference.  It’s also a stirring reminder that our collective struggles as New Yorkers – to fight for social justice and a city in which we all belong – deserve to be memorialized.

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