Tag Archives: Astor Place

A Witness to Violence: Colonnade Row and the Astor Place Riots of 1849

On May 10, 1849, Astor Place erupted into bloody violence as crowds took to the streets and battled it out — over a Shakespearean actor. It was the first time in American history that a state militia trained its muskets upon the very population it had been sworn to protect.

Courtesy NYPL

Yet of the many structures today surrounding Astor Place, only Colonnade Row (at 428–434 Lafayette Place) still remains from that dreadful day. From between its columns that May night, residents observed the horrifying violence firsthand. These old buildings, distinctive for their Corinthian columns, seem especially weathered when compared with the dazzling Astor Library across the street, home to the Public Theater since 1967.

(Colonnade Row, it should be noted, is also something of an off-Broadway landmark. The Astor Place Theatre, located in the basement, has been home to the flamboyant Blue Man Group spectacle for so long that the original performers have since turned gray.)

Vauxhall Gardens (Courtesy NYPL, lithography by George Haywood)

In 1805 this area was home to Vauxhall Gardens, an outdoor recreational venue that functioned something like a privately run park. But the city was expanding north, and wealthy fur trader–turned–real estate tycoon John Jacob Astor understood high society’s desire for more refined residential quarters.

In 1826 Astor sliced a street right through Vauxhall Gardens and named it after the Marquis de Lafayette.

Upon the western side of Lafayette Place (now Lafayette Street) he commissioned an upscale housing complex originally called La Grange Terrace, named for the marquis’s estate back in France.

An image of Colonnade Row from 1899 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

As historian Alvin F. Harlow later observed, Astor “was ridiculed for his folly in building such mansions on the very outskirts of town, but he was right.”

Completed in 1833, La Grange Terrace was quite a large and lavish address, boasting nine residences (today’s Colonnade Row contains only four of these original houses) that attracted notable members of high society—a relation of Washington Irving, the father-in-law of President John Tyler, even Astor’s own grandson. They were among the toasts of the town, hosting dinner parties in their twenty-six-room(!) mansions, and enjoying such state-of-the-art luxuries as central heating and indoor plumbing.

Some residents of La Grange Terrace were home on the evening of May 10, 1849, the night that all hell broke loose.

Inside the Astor Place Opera House for the Ball of the New York Fire Department (Courtesy NYPL)

Located just up the block between Astor Place and 8th Street, the Astor Place Opera House had opened two years before as a place for the city’s elite to gather, flaunt their good fortune, and take in an evening of (often imported) culture. Indeed, this was the case on the night of May 10, when they gathered to witness a highly antici- pated performance of Macbeth, starring William Charles Macready, England’s most famous tragedian.

For years Macready had been engaged in high-profile thespian warfare with New York’s most celebrated hometown actor, Edwin Forrest, a charismatic star whose rugged, brawny performances endeared him to working-class audiences.

Below: William Macready in costume, painted by John Jackson

At first, the publicity surrounding their rivalry was a boon to both actors and to ticket sales wherever they performed. Both Macready and Forrest toured the United States in separate productions, many times visiting cities just days apart from each other. Audiences would attend both shows and argue for days about the superiority of one performance over the other.

Soon, however, it seemed these boisterous theatrical arguments were about something larger than the delivery of a Shakespearean soliloquy. Tensions were simmering about something deeper than any actor or performance, but rather that which they represented.

Forrest’s popularity among the Bowery crowd, especially the new Irish immigrants seeking to survive on the lowest rung of New York life, emboldened them against Macready. Macready’s fans, meanwhile, were eager to associate themselves with the fineries of English society. To Macready’s rarified audiences, Forrest represented the growing dangers of the impoverished immigrant class in the rapidly expanding city.

Below: Edwin Forrest, in a later photographic portrait by Mathew Brady

As the actors’ public feud grew more heated, so too did the ire of their respective audiences. And here, in May of 1849, both actors were performing in the same city at the same time. Tensions were high.

On May 7, Forrest supporters had disrupted a performance of Macbeth at the Opera House, pelting the stage with wilted vegetables and rotten eggs. Scorned and embarrassed, the English actor vowed never again to perform in New York and packed his bags to head back to London.

Prominent city leaders (including Washington Irving, a frequent guest at La Grange Terrace) convinced him to stick around for his final, highly anticipated performance three days later. Macready begrudgingly acquiesced.

That night, May 10, thousands of anti-Macready rioters packed into Astor Place, pushing up against the police forces gathered around the theater.

Tensions mounted as the crowds swelled, raising their voices—and then the stones started flying. Protestors pulled cobblestones from the street, pelting the police officers while screaming to burn the theater to the ground.

Inside, the audience tried to keep its focus on Macready, who gave a fine performance, given the circumstances, the drama of the evening enhanced by the growing sense of danger in the air. Once the show was over, Macready wisely disguised himself and made a quick exit through the back of the theater, never to perform in America again.

As darkness fell, the police struggled to contain the crowd and needed backup. The state militia marched from Washington Square and gathered inside the stables of La Grange Terrace, ready to disperse the agitated crowd that filled the square.

The soldiers fired shots into the crowd, seemingly without a distinct target. Anger turned to panic as thousands pushed and shoved, pulling in and trampling innocent bystanders in their path. By the time the crowd finally dispersed, at least twenty-five people had been shot and killed, some from stray bullets that hit them inside their homes.

This violent episode signaled the beginning of the end for Astor Place as an elite destination. Soon, ritzy developments opened farther north near Union Square, Gramercy Park, and later, Madison Square, and the old Opera House was torn down.

In the 1850s Astor Place saw the opening of two institutions that would give it a new educational purpose: the private lending library owned by the Astor family (opened in 1853) and the Cooper Union institution of higher learning (in 1859).

The remaining structures from the 1930s (Courtesy NYPL/Wurts Bros)

Unsurprisingly, La Grange Terrace experienced a spectacular fall from grace. It played various roles over the next several decades, functioning as various hotels and boardinghouses, before five of the nine houses were demolished in 1902.

The other four continued into the twentieth century as curious relics of a bygone era. In 1965 they were among the inaugural structures to be saved by the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Even with battered old columns, this landmark tells a marvelous story of New York—from blue bloods to Blue Men.

The above is an excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

History in the Making 5/10: After the Riot Edition

The Astor Place Riot erupted onto the streets outside the Astor Place Opera House on this date in 1849.  (You can listen to the thrilling details in our podcast on the subject from 2014.)  The opera house didn’t last much longer and was turned Clinton Hall, site of the New York Mercantile Library.

Here are a few images of old Clinton Hall:

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

And here’s a view from 1890:

Courtesy New York Heritage
Courtesy New York Heritage

In 1890 it was replaced the present building which sits there today, also called Clinton Hall. the blog Bedford and Bowery has a breathtaking round-up of its history, including a dramatic fire in 1926.

Below: The brand new building in 1893, as seen in King’s Handbook of New York

1

 

And now — some upcoming events and exhibitions you might want to check out this week:

Just opened at the New-York Historical SocietyAnti-Semitism 1919-1939 — A terrifying look at attacks against  hate in post-World War I Europe and the rise of Adolf Hitler. ” Included is Hitler’s original outline of a 1939 speech that he gave to the Reichstag about the “Jewish Question,” announcements of mass meetings dictating the exclusion of Jews, anti-Semitic books and signs, as well as an original printing of the Nuremberg Laws, which laid the legal foundation for Hitler’s Holocaust.” Details here

Opening today, May 10 and running until Sunday, May 15 — “In the Shadow of the Highway: Robert Moses Expressway and the Battle for Downtown,” a new pop-up exhibit about Moses’ potentially disastrous LOMEX plan and the efforts to stop it.  At the Allen Street Storefront, 103 Allen Street. More details here.

Thursday, May 12 at 6:30pm — A Book Talk with Joseph Alexiou, guest on the recent Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Troubled Waters podcast, at the Museum of the City of New York, where he discusses Gowanus history with Hannah Frishberg from Brownstoner. Details and tickets here.

Next weekend, May 21-22, Saturday and Sunday — It’s Sacred Sites Open House Weekend,  an event sponored by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, your chance to visit that unique house of worship you’ve always wanted to see.  Details here.

Just opened at the Staten Island Museum — Home Games, a nostalgic look at sports history on Staten Island.  The baseball exhibit features “Bobby Thompson and Hank Majeski, Matty McIntyre, Sonny Logan and Glen Mosley of the New York Black Yankees, Gloria Elliott, and the 1964 Mid-Island Little League world champions.” Visit the museum then take in a Staten Island Yankees game afterwards. The field is right across the street from the museum! Details here.

 

AND A NEW MUSIC-FILLED PODCAST THIS FRIDAY!

The Astor Place Cube is going away (but, really, don’t panic)

The Alamo, aka the Astor Place Cube, 1978. Photographed by Manel Armegol/Flickr

Like many remaining stalwarts of the East Village, the Astor Place Cube is headed into a “rehabilitation” of sorts.

Alamo, the sculpture by Tony Rosenthal, is being removed as Astor Place goes through an extensive $16 million renovation. The blog Bedford + Bowery observed the sculpture being lifted into a flatbed truck and driven away, to return sometime next year.  The cube has been boxed up for over a month in anticipation for its temporary removal.

It’s coming back! They swear! Still with the closure of so many East Village institutions, it’s a startling thing to see.  When it returns, it will be surrounded by pedestrian lanes and Sawtooth Oak trees.  Like many of us, it will look around its new environment and wonder what the hell just happened.

Meanwhile the Cooper Union building — the original, classic one — will still be there. As will Jerry’s Newsstand.  And, of course, the office building that was once the location of the Astor Place Opera House, famous for the 1849 Astor Place Riots.

So, goodbye for now, swirly cube. We’ll see you in 2015. (UPDATE: Per EV Grieve, the cube returns to Astor Place on June 22, 2016.)

The Alamo in 1980, photographed by Michael Sean Edwards.

The Alamo in 1988, photographed by Stu Brown.

The Alamo in 1989, photographed by firedoctor/Flickr

The Alamo sometime in the early 1990s (judging from the lack of Starbucks and K-Mart in the picture), photographed by smilerwithaknife/Flickr

The Alamo in 2009, photograph courtesy juanamarie33/Flickr

Thanks to the photographers above, and thanks to the Bedford + Bowery for being on top of this! They have a video of the removal if you want to cry cube-shaped tears.

The Astor Place Riot: Massacre at a busy crossroad as a Shakespearean rivalry ignites New York class struggles

“By the pricking of my thumbs / something wicked this way comes” — Macbeth

PODCAST England’s great thespian William Macready mounted the stage of the Astor Place Opera House on May 10, 1849, to perform Shakespeare’s Macbeth, just as he had done hundreds of times before.  But this performance would become infamous in later years as the trigger for one of New York City’s most violent events — the Astor Place Riot.

The theater, being America’s prime form of public entertainment in the early 19th century, was often home to great disturbances and riots.  It was still seen as a British import and often suffered the anti-British sentiments that often vexed early New Yorkers.

Macready, known as one of the world’s greatest Shakespearean stars, was soon rivaled by American actor Edwin Forrest, whose brawny, ragged style of performance endeared the audiences of the Bowery.  To many, these two actors embodied many of America’s deepest divides — rich vs. poor, British vs. American, Whig vs. Democrat.

On May 10th, these emotions overflowed into an evening of stark, horrifying violence as armed militia shot indiscriminately into an angry mob gathering outside theater at Astor Place.  By the end of this story, over two dozen New Yorkers would be murdered, dozens more wounded, and the culture of the city irrevocably changed.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #164 The Astor Place Riot

The riot immortalized on a cigarette card. (courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

The Old Astor Place Opera House.

____________________________________________________________________

And we would like to again thank our new sponsor Squarespace!  Squarespace, the all-in-one platform that makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website or online portfolio.  For a free trial and 10% off (your first purchase), go to squarespace.com and use offer code BOWERY.
 ____________________________________________________________________

BOWERY BOYS MERCHANDISE IS ON ITS WAY! More details on Monday. But here’s a preview. [Official Bowery Boys Store]
 ____________________________________________________________________

RIOT OR RIOTS?  You may have noticed in our podcast that we go from calling it the Astor Place Riot and the Astor Place Riots.  We both saw primary references to both the singular and the plural.  Though it was just one riot which occurred on May 10, the incidents on May 7 and May 11 constitute smaller riots or disturbances that lead up or were the result of the May 10 event.  The word ‘riot’ is even funny as it starts as a riot and ends as a massacre.

In the end, I just decided to simplify it in the headline, but I think either are acceptable

CORRECTION: In the podcast, I mention that John Jacob Astor lived in the line of stately buildings today known as Colonnade Row.  Although he built them, he never lived here.  However he moved his family into them, including his grandson John Jacob Astor III.  Cornelius Vanderbilt and Washington Irving also lived here.
 ____________________________________________________________________

The Astor Place Opera House in 1850 and its approximate location as it looks in 2004

Inside the Astor Opera House, one of the most lavish spaces in all of New York in the 1840s.  Curiously, this illustration depicts a ball for the New York Fire Department.  Many members of the volunteer fire departments  actually set upon the opera house as part of the angry mob.

After the riots, the opera house quickly lost its cache. High society moved uptown to the Academy of Music (not so far away actually, on 14th Street, near Union Square).  The interior of the theater was eventually demolished and sold to the New York Mercantile Library and renamed Clinton Hall.

This was torn down in 1890 and replaced with the 11-story structure that stands there today.

Many considered the demons of Astor Place purged when Cooper Union was finally constructed in 1859, a decade after the riots.  In this image, we’re looking up Third Avenue and the final remnant of the Bowery.  The Third Avenue Elevated has already been built here:

William Macready:
(In the podcast, I note that a photograph — actually a daguerreotype — exists of Mr. Macready. I admit, that I only read that they exist but I was unable to find one. Once I do, I’ll replace the image below.0

Edwin Forrest: In portrait and in daguerreotype

Most images above courtesy the New York Public Library (except where otherwise noted). We thank them again for being an invaluable resource for New York City history!

Wanamaker’s Airship: That one time in 1911 they launched a hydrogen balloon from Astor Place

A view of the balloon launch, looking north towards the Metropolitan Life Tower, which can be seen jutting up in the background. The Met Tower was the world’s tallest building in 1911.

Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker turned an abandoned train station in Philadelphia into the lavish department bearing his name in 1876, just in time for America’s 100th anniversary.  He would become one of Philadelphia’s largest employers, with 5,000 people working in the store, “the most valuable piece of property of its size in the city.” [source]

Meanwhile, in New York City, when shoppers weren’t flocking to Ladies Mile, they headed to A.T Stewart‘s equally grand ‘Iron Palace’ department store in Astor Place, with over thirty departments specializing in every sort of modern necessity, making it one of the largest stores of any kind in America.

Stewart’s store was located on Fourth Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets and was called the ‘Iron Palace’ as it was New York’s largest cast-iron building at the time.  (But not the first; that title goes to its neighbor, the American Bible Society building, at 51 Astor Place.)

Below: The original Wanamaker’s between 9th and 10th Streets. The building no longer exists.

It would take two decades for Wanamaker to make his way to New York, eventually buying up an old Iron Palace in 1896 and reopening it as New York’s first Wanamakers.

But a man who had filled an entire train station in Philadelphia would not simply be content with one lavish store; across the street, between 8th and 9th, he built another in 1902, using one of the world’s most revered architects — Daniel Burnham, who had just completed work on the Flatiron Building.  Customers could go between the buildings using a fanciful ‘bridge of progress’.

That is all, of course, to set this scene for the curious publicity stunt which occurred on the rooftop of Wanamaker’s on July 8, 1911.  For three days, a large hydrogen balloon (48 feet in diameter) sat tethered upon the rooftop of the new building, filling up with copious amounts of gas for a journey to Philadelphia — with a planned landing near Wanamaker’s other store.

In 1911, that old train-station store would be replaced with a new Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia’s Center City, also built by Burnham.  No better way to grab headlines for his new store in Philadelphia than to float a gigantic eye-catching object from one store to the other!

The balloon (called the Wanamaker No. 1), imported from Paris, was launched at 6 pm and gracefully floated over the city, across the Hudson, fadeing into the mists of Weehawken.

Unfortunately for the balloon’s two pilots, things went immediately awry, the balloon being a tricky one to control.  Instead of floating southwest, it headed due north.  After an hour and a half of wandering blindly through the clouds, the balloon ungraciously came down — in Nyack, New York.

But it wasn’t considered a failure by any means. Wanamaker’s wanted a publicity stunt and got one.  The launch made the front page of newspapers.  For a moment, the whole region seemed transfixed.  “Crowds turned out to gaze at the big airship as it passed over the Hudson River villages,” crowed the New York Times.

Some even claimed this was the beginning of a new phase in New York travel.  Rooftops could regularly be used to launch airships of all sorts.  “This is the first step towards making the roofs of the Wanamaker buildings in New York and Philadelphia into permanent aerial stations,” claimed the Evening World.  “Landing platforms and hangars for balloons and aeroplanes are to be built on the roofs of the department stores in both cities.”

Not to be outdone, the following month, Gimbels Department Store would stage a marvelous airplane race over the streets of Manhattan.

By the way, Mr. Wanamaker wasn’t even in the country when all this happened.  He rolled into town the following week aboard the White Star liner Oceanic, having celebrated his 73rd birthday in style by traveling to England and meeting King George and Queen Mary.

The original Wanamaker’s building is no longer there, but the south building, the one designed by Burnham and the one from which the balloon was launched, still exists today as the home of K-Mart.

Below: That same week, one could run into the store below the balloon and purchase this swell Victrola. This ad is from the July 10, 1911 issue of the Evening World

Pictures courtesy the Library of Congress.

This woman’s work: Exhausting images of Astor Place and Lafayette Street

Gritty streets, circa 1912. Looking up Lafayette Street, below Astor Place. “The breaking point. A heavy load for an old woman.” The building to the right is the DeVinne Press Building, built in the 1880s, and today home to Astor Center Wine & Spirits. In the distance: the Wanamaker Department Store building, today the home to K-Mart! Look here and turn the angle north for the present view of this street. [Source: LOC]



Lewis Hine hit the streets of New York in 1912 looking for dirt. And he found it. The teacher-turned-social activist and photographer had found the camera a useful tool in illustrating poverty and had already drawn attention to deplorable child labor conditions. In the wake of early social crusaders like Jacob Riis, Hine’s photos helped the poorest New Yorkers by showcasing their daily toil in a landscape of decrepit quality.

Beyond the social commentary, however, these are still fascinating portraits of New York. None are more striking to me personally than his images taken one hundred years ago this month from Astor Place and along Lafayette Street. Many New Yorkers marveled that month at the exploits of daredevil pilot Frank Coffyn over New York harbor, but after the fun was over, many came home to this.

A highly energetic crossroads today, the destination of college students, shoppers, and theater goers, Astor Place has clearly cleaned up its act since Hine sat his tripod here a century ago. With these particular images, Hines was specifically commenting on ‘home-work’, poor women and children taking raw materials or clothing to mend back to their tenements, turning their confined living quarters into personal sweatshops.

They say other things to us today. The street conditions speak for themselves. But see if you can identify some of these street corners!

Caption “Woman crossing Astor Place with home-work”: Looking up Fourth Avenue, with the Wanamaker department store building (designed by the great Daniel Burnham in 1904) to the left.

Two pictures on the same street corner. Notice the condition of the street in the background. The shop sign advertises ‘Choice Fruits, Candies, Cigarettes, Hot Frankfurters’. They also have a public AT&T telephone.

I find this one the most intriguing. “Young girl carrying bundle of coats home to be finished.” She’s clearly walking up (or down?) along the Third Avenue elevated train. Keep in mind, in context to last week’s post on the Coffyn flight, that it’s so cold in New York at this time that the East River has frozen over in many places.

Pictures courtesy of the Library of Congress. You can check out their digital archives for hundreds of other Hine photographs from this era.

Harvey Milk lives on in Astor Place

Harvey Milk in high school (Bay Shore, Long Island, to be exact). Picture courtesy of Brother Brian

Judging from the lines at the movie theater, New Yorkers had a little Milk with their turkey over the holiday weekend. It made $1.8 million in five days, almost a quarter of that just from eight New York screens.

Hopefully a few of those film goers were former or current high school students of the institution that bare Milk’s name in New York. (Because, let’s face it, not every student gets to see a life story of their high school’s namesake. Am I right, students of Harry Van Arsdale High School in Brooklyn?)

Harvey Milk, who spent several years in New York’s burgeoning gay activist scene before moving to San Francisco, had a unique high school named after him years after his murder in 1978. Founded in 1985 as an outreach program for the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the Harvey Milk High School targets gay and lesbian youth often ostracized from their own schools and frequently in greater risk of dropping out.

This year’s enrollment of 96 students over four grades do have a leg up on other schools, with 92% of the student body graduating, according to Hetrick-Martin’s website.

While the mere concept made the school a lightening rod for controversy (including within the gay community), things got especially contentious in 2003, when the city’s Department of Education took over administrative functions, essentially transforming it into an accredited public school. That brought out attacks by conservative state senators and even that old traveling circus the Fred Phelps family. (James Wagner has some spectacular and disturbing photos of their protest.)

As a New York history buff, I just have to love its location, at 2 Astor Place, one of the centers of city education, with Cooper Union and the former Astor library just a block away. And every New Yorker has been in the basement of this building at least once in their lives, to get a quick trim at the Astor Place Hairstylist.

For a more exhaustive history, New York Magazine wrote a fantastic feature on the school back in 2005, giving further background on the school’s very rocky existence.

When Jupiter aligned with Mars: Hair on Broadway


Forty years ago today, April 29, 1968, the musical Hair debuted on Broadway and basically changed New York’s theater industry — where shows come from, how they’re staged, what you can even doon stage.

Here’s ten reasons why Broadway’s first rock musical is so important, and why today you should probably fish out your Fifth Dimension CD or original cast album in tribute to this one of a kind groovy show:

1) Hair made the Public Theater. The show made its debut on October 17, 1967 at the Public, which was itself making its debut. In fact, the theater in which is was being performed — in the former Astor Library — wasn’t even finished yet! The Public Theater would have course to go on to become off-Broadway’s leading theatrical producer.

2) After six weeks, Hair would foreshadow Studio 54’s own transformation into a Broadway house by moving the remainder of its off-Broadway run into the Cheetah discotheque.

3) Hair is the very first musical to be transferred from off-Broadway. At the time an extremely risky proposition, it’s today considered a logical move for the most critically popular of shows. Rent, Avenue Q and Spring Awakening — like Hair, all off-center shows with sexuality and rebellion at their core — also made the jump to the big stage and all won Tonys for Best Musical.

4) Hair brings Tom O’Horgan to Broadway. A regular at the off-off-Broadway La Mama — the East Village’s most venerated experimental theater — O’Horgan brought an uncompromising edge to his staging that was entirely shocking to mainstream theatrical audiences. O’Horgan would stay on Broadway throughout the 70s with pivotal work in Jesus Christ Superstar, Futz!, and Lenny.

5) Hair doubles the number of songs ‘allowed’ in a musical. The sheer number of songs in Broadway restaging made it unique, over thirty. The big musical from the previous year, Cabaret, barely featured half that number

6) O’Horgan also brings the nudity. The uptown redux features one of the most influential scenes in all of Broadway history — at the end of the first act, when the entire cast, in low lights, appear completely unclothed, the first stage nudity to hit the Great White Way.

7) A New York icon debuts. Diane Keaton (above, in the middle) becomes an understudy in the show but refuses to do the nude scenes. After several months with the cast, Keaton goes on to her next show — Play It Again, Sam — where she makes the acquaintance of a young director, Woody Allen.

8) Up for two awards (Best Director and Best Musical) at the 1969 Tony Awards, it lost both to the musical 1776. Interestingly, Diane Keaton is up for her Tony that year for Play It Again Sam and also lost.

9) Hair closes July 1, 1972 after 1,750 performances. It is the 38th longest running musical in Broadway history, between La Cage Au Folles (at 37) and The Wiz (at 39).

10) An unbelievable one-night revival of Hair, in 2004, for an Actors Fund benefit, mounted at the New Amsterdam and featured the following cast: JM J. Bullock, Harvey Fierstein, Ana Gasteyer, Annie Golden, Jai Rodriguez, RuPaul, Michael McKean, Laura Benanti, Adam Pascal and future Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson

Here’s about a comprehensive list of some of Hair ‘s original review. Both the New York Post and the New York Times gives the original off-Broadway production a condescendingly mixed review.

The Village Voice? Hated it. “As for Hair, I loathed and despised it. Described as ‘an American tribal love-rock musical’ it turned out to be all phony.” Wow, some things never change!

We’ll see how the critics like it this summer when the Public Theatre restages Hair for its Shakespeare In The Park program at Delacorte Theatre, from July 22 to August 17. Diane Keaton won’t be in it, but will there be nudity?

Time’s up for Astor Place’s famous clock

Before we leave Cooper Union, I thought I was draw your attention a rather controversial decision they’ve made in the past few years that has marred an institution of Astor Place — the Carl Fischer note clock.

Carl Fischer, still a leader in printed sheet music, began as a tiny musical instrument store on East 4th Street in 1872, successfully incorporating printed music by the end of the century. Carl’s son Walter carried on the business into the next century, moving the enterprise into a new beige 12-story building at 62 Cooper Square, right off Astor Place in 1923.

Throughout the years, it was the place in downtown New York to grab the sheet music for any occasion and even into the 1990s held on to its old-school charm, with uniformed attendants in the elevators and little evidence of modern technical organization. In 1999, the company moved out of the building, which now houses 26 loft apartments. Their new location is at 65 Bleeker Street.

Even if you never bought sheet music, the store was a fixture of Astor Place due to the charming clock, blooming from a gigantic eighth note, that stretched down the side of the building, hovering over a small parking lot below. There has always been a clock alongside the building as long as Fischer was in the building, though it the past it was incorporated into murals featuring a boy scout with a drum, an art-deco sun pattern, and a marching band.

The parking lot has always been owned by Cooper Union, and it’s no surprise given the condo frenzy that has possessed New York that in 1999, the same year that Carl Fischer vacated the premises, they decided to lease to Gwathmey Siegel & Associates for a new condominium.

That parking lot has a bit of a storied history of its own, a frequent spot for people to sell a mix of unusual wares along the street. Author Michael Galinsky wrote about this curious intersection several years ago and kindly forwarded me a link to Flickr that featured some pictures from the book which I highly recommend you check out, especially if you’re a fan of 80s New York street scenes.

However, that parking lot is gone, replaced with the Astor Place Tower, a sleek 21 story glass tower. I leave it to you to form your own opinions about this building. What is has done, however, is completely dwarf the famous old clock, completely obscuring it at many times of the day with a glare and creating an awkward canyon between the Tower and the Fischer building that can’t be creating a very attractive view from certain windows.

Do the Astors own you?


On the passing yesterday of the 800 year old Astor family monarch Brooke Astor, I thought I’d give you a brief rundown on all the places in which they’ve left a literal impression.

Okay, ole Brooke was really 105, but in New York anyway, her passing has the feeling of an institution having left the building. She married into the family via Vincent Astor, the only son of John Jacob Astor IV. However she quickly embodied the family’s heritage and sophistication. Unfortunately she fell victim not only to Alzheimer’s but to an apparently abusive son who was accused of squandering her fortune on, among other things, theatrical productions.

But her charitable contributions set the bar for philanthropy among New York’s upper class, benefiting a wide range of organizations, from the New York Public Library to the Fresh Air Fund.

But the Astor family has given New Yorkers another present, the name. Most derive from the progenitor of the family clan, John Jacob Astor, a self-made fur trader who made his name at the start of the 19th century and ended up becoming the richest man in New York history:

Astoria Queens — This area of New York’s most diverse borough is named after John Jacob, who at first didn’t have much to do with it at all. Stephen Halsey built a village here and tried to lure John Jacob, the creme of nouveau riche at the time, into donating money by offering to name it after him. He didn’t donate much ($5,000, pocket change to a millionaire), but he still got the name, and later had a summer home there.

Located in Astoria was the Paramount owned movie studio Astoria Studios, which made silent pictures in its heyday. It was transformed into the Museum of the Moving Image in 1988, focusing on the history of American cinema. The city’s oldest surviving beer garden, Bohemian Hall, is also located here.

Astor Place — This plaza near Cooper Union, St Marks Place, and that funny looking cube was the home of his John Jacob’s notorious opera house the Astor Place Opera House, where in 1849, Irish-English tensions (hmm, that seems to be our theme this week!) spilled over during a production of Macbeth, and in the ensuing riot, 18 people were killed.

Theater of the less deadly variety can be found down at the Astor Place Theater, where the Blue Man Group has made a permanent residence.

Astor Place Wines, one of the best wine stores in Manhattan, left their famous corner location last year and are just a block down on Lafayette.

Astor Row — Certainly one of Manhattan’s more unusual streets, the houses on this Harlem block (on east 130th street) have a distinctly Southern feel, with lumbering porches and cute front yards. John Jacob bought this land too, but left the housing development to his grandson. After years of deterioration, the homes are now preserved to their original beauty and worth a visit.

Waldorf-Astoria — Dont be fooled by the name; its actually the blending of two different Astors, William Waldorf Astor and John Jacob Astor IV. As befitting the ultra rich, the hotel developed from a family feud, two competing hotels from the same family next to each other. They were soon connected as one and became the gold standard of hoteliers in the world.

By the way, the Waldorf salad was invented in the kitchens of the hotel. The Waldorf-Astoria is now owned by the Hiltons and contributes in part to the fortunes in which Paris rolls about in.

John Jacob Astor IV would have been quite a doting father-in-law to Brooke had she known him. Unfortunately he died in the sinking of the Titanic.