Tag Archives: City Hall

Finding Magic In Old New York: The historic places of ‘Fantastic Beasts’

The article below contains spoilers involving locations used in the movie, but no specific plot spoilers that aren’t already revealed in the trailer.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, strictly a fantasy film of course, from the vivid mind of J.K. Rowling, is nonetheless the year’s best historical depiction of New York City.  This indulgence of the imagination is even more successful as a celebration of the past.

Sure, its presentation of 1920s New York is filled with physical impossibilities. Its Times Square blazes with the electric insignias of fake Broadway revues and advertisements. Its rows of townhouses are a wee bit too perfect and uniform.

But this story of an English wizard and his mischievous bag of creatures gets the magic of Old New York exactly right. Its a brilliant consideration of the imagined city — shining towers and beautiful architecture, speakeasies and cobblestone streets. The film lovingly unfurls the beauty of steel-beam architecture and old Beaux-Arts mansard roofs with as much loving care as the whimsical beasts of the title.

In a rather unprecedented and creative move, the City of New York has gotten into the movie tie-in game, presenting a fun page of historical photographs with a slider to compare old sites used in the film with today. There’s also an interactive map showing the streets of New York as presented in the film.

No really. It’s pretty darn spectacular. [Try it out here.]

And On Location Tours is providing tours crossing many of the main sites of the film.

Even if you’re not a fantasy film buff, I think you’ll be captivated by the art direction and design of this film. Here are a few of my favorite details:

The Singer Building, 1911. courtesy Museum of the City of New York
The Singer Building, 1911. courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Singer Building — The main character Newt Scamander arrives in New York Harbor and disembarks at Chelsea Piers. The camera pans over a breathtaking shot of downtown New York, its skyline as it would have looked in 1926. Most prominent among its many skyscrapers is the Singer Building.

From our book Adventures In Old New York:

“For a few short months from 1908 to 1909, the building that stood at 165 Broadway was the tallest in the world: the forty-seven-story Singer Building, the skyscraper trophy built by the head of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Its unusual appearance—a narrow red tower shooting up from a chunky base—was among the most glorious on the young New York skyline. Its interior was festooned with bronze medallions engraved with the images of needle, thread, and bobbin. Because we can’t have nice things, they ripped it apart at the seams and tore it down in 1967. Prior to 2001, it remained the tallest building in the world ever demolished.”


Woolworth Building — The world’s tallest building in 1926 is pivotal to the plot of Fantastic Beasts, the extra-dimensional headquarters for New York’s magicians. By 1926, it would have felt truly magical — if a bit old fashioned.  The sudden rise of Art Deco architecture and the installation of zoning laws in New York would have made the Woolworth feel like a unusual treasure of the skyline.

From our book:  “Designed by Cass Gilbert for the “five-and-dime” retail king Frank Woolworth, the Woolworth Building was a glowing candle of a skyscraper next to dainty little City Hall. The Woolworth’s intricate facade was adorned with many of the “international races” echoed down at Gilbert’s other big Manhattan building, the U.S. Custom House (1 Bowling Green).

Built three years before the city enacted stricter zoning laws (which, among other things, forced the construction of setbacks that would result in tiered wedding cake–shaped structures), the Woolworth simply zooms straight up into the sky.

Advertisements to fill the office space in the Woolworth Building made use of its unique place in American commerce. Said one ad, “Customers will never overlook your store if it is in the Woolworth Building. The sight and thought of the world’s greatest structure will remind them of you and your store.”


New York Subway Entrances — The unusual but elegant New York subway entrances are marvelously recreated here.  The spectacular design of the entrances is inspired by the subway in Budapest (yes, they had a subway before New York), using a kushk or summerhouse design often found in ancient Turkish structures.

Below: A similar entrance from 1940 in Union Square. Photographer Arnold Eagle, courtesy Museum of City of New York.




The Central Park Zoo escape — A specific moment in New York City history is strongly referenced in one exciting sequence in the movie. Or, should I say, an imagined moment in New York City history.

On November 9, 1874, the New York Herald ran a fictitious tale of animals escaping from the Central Park Zoo. “A SHOCKING SABBATH CARNIVAL OF DEATH” ran the headline:  “Another Sunday of horror has been added to those already memorable in our city annals. The sad and appalling catastrophe of yesterday is a further illustration of the unforeseen perils to which large communities are exposed.”

Harper’s Weekly recounts the hoax in a article from 1893 here.



City  Hall Subway Station — One of the major action set pieces of the film takes place in a New York space that few are rarely allowed to go — the underground City Hall subway station.  Built in 1904 for the first subway, it was the most beautiful and the most elaborate, meant to assure the public of the subway’s comfort and safety. It was taken out of regular service in 1945 however it is occasionally reopened for tour groups.

We talk about this station in the first part of our history of the New York City subway:




All images from Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them are courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.


Federal Hall: Now and Always An American National Treasure

Federal Hall National Memorial, currently administered by the National Park Service, has always been a popular landmark with tourists thanks to its position on one of the most photographed intersections in New York. Who can resist that noble statue of George Washington silently meditating on the financial juggernaut of Wall Street?

Today Federal Hall was officially named an official American National Treasure, part of the ongoing Saving Places program by National Trust for Historic Preservation calling attention to endangered landmarks of national significance.  It joins an impressive hodgepodge of local landmarks such as South Street Seaport, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Whitney Studio.

While this sounds like a distinction that might pique the interest of Nicolas Cage — after all, he broke into Trinity Church up the street in the first National Treasure film — the National Treasure program gives a boost to historic places that may be otherwise neglected or under-appreciated.  When’s the last time you were there?

Here are a few facts about the history of Federal Hall that you may not have known:

1. This isn’t the real Federal Hall The original structure was built in 1699, built by the British who used  materials from the city’s demolished north defense wall — aka the wall of Wall Street — to construct it.  It was the center of most governmental functions, from city administration to later federal functions.


2. It was remodeled by a controversial architect.  Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a successful city contractor and former Continental Army engineer redesigned the structure in time for its use as the first national capital. According to David McCullough, “it was the first building in America designed to exalt the national spirit, in what would come to be known as the Federal style.”  L’Enfant would later work on the creation of Washington DC from Maryland swampland and be fired from that project — by George Washington.

Courtesy Nationaal ArchiefCourtesy Nationaal Archief

3. George Washington was first inaugurated here on April 30, 1789. The King James bible he was sworn in with — property of a New York Freemason lodge — is still at Federal Hall.

From the Bowery Boys Instagram feed:


4. The original Federal Hall was torn down in 1812 when city administration moved to the new City Hall.  Its materials were sold off to make other buildings in the city.

Below: Wall Street in 1825 without a Federal Hall, either old or new!


5. The current Federal Hall is actually the original U.S. Custom House which opened in 1842, replacing a structure used for that purpose at 22-24 Wall Street.

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

6. The offices of the Custom House again moved in 1855, and the building was used as the U.S. Sub-Treasury building. In 1913 it became the first place in New  York to buy the original buffalo nickel. 

Below: Suffrage proponents Mrs. W.L. Prendergast, Mrs. W.L. Colt, Doris Stevens, Alice Paul stop in front of Federal Hall

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

7. In 1918 Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks famously drew thousands to the steps of Federal Hall to promote the sale of war bonds.   Later that year doughnuts were auctioned off from its steps as a war fund-raiser.


8.  In 1920 a wagon full of dynamite exploded across the street from the Sub-Treasury, killing 38 people in what is today still an unsolved mystery.

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

9. The Sub-Treasury had moved out by the 1930s, and the building was officially re-opened as the Federal Hall Memorial Museum in January 1940.  It was inspired in part by America’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration. The 1939-40 World’s Fair presented a replica of the original Federal Hall even after an earlier version of Federal Hall in Bryant Park failed to attract visitors. 

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

10. Federal Hall received a massive renovation in 2006 after the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001 weakened the foundations of the building.


Check out the official announcement at the website for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Top image by the Wurts Brothers, taken in 1908. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

It’s Open House New York 2015! Adventures await at these free sites

 Open House New York is the absolute best time of the year to wander the city and visit dozens of New York City’s greatest historical landmarks and architectural wonders.  Unfortunately, reservations for some of those places pretty much filled up within ten minutes.
But never fear! This year, it seems that a great number of the most interesting ones don’t need reservations and are wander-in-as-you-please type venues. Go to their website or pick up a copy of the Open House schedule and stitch together some great weekend plans.


Below are some my personal recommendations, ten must-see stops for your weekend.  I’ll be spending my weekend hitting several Open House sites, including some of those listed below.  You can follow along with my trek through the city on Twitter (@boweryboys).


For a few of these, I’ve also made some podcast listening suggestions; you can download those older Bowery Boys episodes from the links, pick them up on iTunes, or stream them on Stitcher and other services.

All the times below are from the Open House New York website. Please check their site before you go for any changes!

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
New York City Hall

Manhattan, Broadway at Murray Street
12 pm4 pm
They’re opening City Hall for free tours? Well, technically, they already give limited tours. But having them as part of Open House NY is a rare treat. Just bring a photo ID and probably get there as early as possible.
Before you go: Listen to our podcast on the history of New York City Hall.  
In the neighborhood: Take a trip to the Manhattan Borough President’s Map Display or visit the African Burial Ground.

Courtesy NYCAgo
Courtesy NYCAgo
Salvation Army’s Centennial Memorial Temple

Manhattan, 120 West 14th Street
Saturday, October 17:  10am – 2 pm
The Salvation Army’s cavernous theater, rarely opened for tours, is a beauty to behold. To quote Daytonian in Manhattan:  “Ask three architectural historians to identify the style of the Centennial Memorial Temple and you will get three separate answers.  It is variously tagged Art Deco, Ziggurat Moderne, and German Expressionism.  I have my own term:  Wizard of Oz Art Deco.” There’s no place like 14th Street.
In the neighborhood: The beautiful Grace Church is open all weekend.  And don’t forget The Masonic Temple of course!

Courtesy the United States Lighthouse Society
Courtesy the United States Lighthouse Society
National Lighthouse Museum

Staten Island, St. George, 200 Promenade at Lighthouse Point
Saturday and Sunday, October 17-18) 11am – 5pm
A brand new museum for New  York City makes its home in the United States Lighthouse Service Depot near the ferry terminal. Almost as interesting as their collection is a history of the site itself “comprised of six historical buildings that date back to the time that the site was the location of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, where all items used by lighthouses around the country were manufactured.”
In the neighborhood: It’s just a short cab or bus ride over to Snug Harbor Cultural Center or down to the Alice Austen House.


Jay Street Firehouse

Downtown Brooklyn, 365 Jay Street
Saturday, October 17, 10am-4pm
I’ve been fascinated by this curious building for years. And now you can climb to the top! “On OHNY Weekend, climb the six flights up to the historic crow’s nest to see where Brooklyn’s fire fighters once watched the horizon for plumes of smoke.”
Before you go: Listen to the Bowery Boys podcast on the history of the New York City Fire Department
In the neighborhood: Admire the beautiful architectures of the Brooklyn Historical Society or take a tour of the magnificent Brooklyn Academy of Music.


Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Vale of Cashmere

Brooklyn, Prospect Park via Grand Army Plaza
Saturday and Sunday, October 17-18, 10am – 6pm
Olmsted & Vaux’s most opulent creation within Prospect Park, an “Alice-in-Wonderland kind of place,” is finally being renovated. “The creation of the Zucker Natural Exploration Area was a first step in this process, and upcoming projects include the restoration of the woodlands and Flatbush Avenue perimeter.”
Before you go: Check out our podcast on the history of Prospect Park
In the neighborhood: Take a tour of the Central Library or visit the Old Stone House.

Courtesy Peter Pennoyer Architects Bookshelf
Courtesy Peter Pennoyer Architects Bookshelf
Marine Air Terminal

Queens, LaGuardia Airport
Saturday and Sunday, October 17-18, 10am – 6pm
Going to LaGuardia Aiport — on purpose?  Trust me. This is worth the trip. The Marine Air Terminal is one of the oldest parts of the airport and the most beautiful.  “The striking circular space is planned with rational simplicity: two stories high with a three-tiered, skylit ceiling. Deep green marble walls set off its defining feature: a vividly colored wraparound mural by James Brooks depicting the history of flight and man’s quest to conquer the skies.”
Before you go: Listen to the Bowery Boys podcast on the history of LaGuardia Airport

Courtesy Marco Cantini
Courtesy Marco Cantini
New York State Pavilion

Queens, Flushing-Meadows Park
Saturday and Sunday, October 17-18, 1pm – 5pm
This enduring ruin of the New York World’s Fair has been newly painted, coming as close to looking like its old self.  “The New York Structural Steel Painting Contractors Association donated their services to re-paint the building’s iconic crown in the original shade of “American Cheese” yellow, brightening the Philip Johnson-designed landmark just in time for the 50th Anniversary of the closing of the fair. Long lines are expected; arrive early!”
 Before you go: Listen to the Bowery Boys podcast on the history of the New York State Pavilion. This show co-stars filmmaker Matthew Silva who gives some exclusive insight into the structure’s later years.
In the neighborhood: Take a tour of the grounds of the old World’s Fair (both of them) then race over to the Queens Museum to check out the Panorama!

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
The Hall of Fame for Great Americans

Bronx, Bronx Community College, 2155 University Avenue
Sunday, October 18, Noon – 4pm
Nestled within the spectacular architecture of Bronx Community College is a true throwback — the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a procession of busts celebrating a wide assortment of American inventors, thinkers and civic leaders.  They stopped updating this many decades ago but its tranquil setting will convince you that you’re on the set of some film set on Mount Olympus.
In the neighborhood: While on the campus, visit the sumptuous Gould Memorial Library and the truly astounding Brutalist masterpieces designed by Marcel Breuer.

Bohemian National Hall

Manhattan, 321 East 73rd Street
Saturday, October 17, Noon – 4pm
Here’s an intriguing surprising on the Upper East Side, celebrating New York’s early Czech and Slovak immigrant culture. The building itself is glorious as is the view from the roof! “Established in 1892, the Bohemian National Hall has been a center for Czech and Slovak immigrants on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for more than a hundred years. It is one of the few well preserved original Czech buildings left in New York City and an important symbol of the Czech contribution in the United States.”
In the neighborhood: Experience a bit of 18th century civility at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum or marvel at the largest synagogue in the world over at Temple Emanu-El.


From "A landmark history of New York; also the origin of street names and a bibliography" (1901)
From “A landmark history of New York; also the origin of street names and a bibliography” (1901)
Hamilton Grange National Memorial

Manhattan, 414 West 141st Street
Sunday, October 18, 6pm – 8:30pm
Alexander Hamilton’s old home will probably be one of the hottest destinations during Open House New York. Not just because of a certain musical, but also because the unique hours.  Hamilton Grange will be open at night, allowing you to experience this classic mansion from a new perspective.

Before you go: Listen to the Bowery Boys podcast on the legendary duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
In the neighborhood: Just nearby you can check out a tour of the unique architecture of City College, or, if you want to keep in a Revolutionary-era mood, stroll the old Morris-Jumel Mansion!


The fire at Barnum’s American Museum 150 years ago

One hundred and fifty years ago this week (July 13, 1865), New York City lost one of its most famous, most imaginative and most politically incorrect attractions.

When P.T. Barnum opened his museum in 1841, the kooky curiosities contained within the building at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street — at the foot of Park Row — were simply reconstituted properties from other museums.  But he soon expanded the collection to include living spectacles, both human and animal, become both the greatest show and the greatest side-show on earth.

From his lilliputian stars Tom Thumb and Commodore Nutt to the unfortunate white whales contained in water tanks in the basement, Barnum’s American Museum was New York’s destination for the fascinating and the weird.  Millions would visit its corridors during its two and a half decades of operation.  It was so renown that it was even a target of attempted sabotage during the Civil War. 

Below: A rare photo of Barnum’s American Museum, taken in 1858

Taken 1858
Taken 1858

At around noon on July 13, 1865, the building quickly succumbed to  “the fierce tooth of fire,” causing the greatest pandemonium that New York City had ever seen.  I must give way to some of the press reports of the day, as they best capture the drama:

New York Times: “Probably no building in New-York was better known, inside and out, to our citizens than the ill-looking ungainly, rambling structure on the corner of Broadway and Ann-streets, known as the American Museum, where for more than twenty years Mr. Barnum has furnished the public with a wonderful variety of amusements.”

Below: The street scene at the cross-section of Broadway and Ann Street, in 1860. A sign advertising Barnum’s snake collection can be seen on the museum.

Courtesy Internet Book Archive
Courtesy Internet Book Archive

New York Sun: “About half past twelve o’clock yesterday … the Engineer rushed up from below announcing that his room was on fire, and about the same time immense volumes of smoke permeated the Ann Street end of the building.  [K]nowing that the immense whale tank was directly over the spot where the fire had begun to make headway, attempted to knock a hole in the huge reservoir.”

Christopher Pearse Cranch. Burning of Barnum's Museum, July 13th, 1865, 1865. Chromolithograph. Eno Collection Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library
Christopher Pearse Cranch. Burning of Barnum’s Museum, July 13th, 1865, 1865. Chromolithograph. Eno Collection Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library


The occupants of the tanks were doomed.  “‘[T]wo whales, imported, at a cost of $7,000, from the coast of Labrador,’ whose sportive plunges and animated contests of affection afforded constant amusement to hundreds of spectators, [was] a pregnant contrast to the fearful death by roasting which they so soon thereafter met.”

The fire spread rapidly, quickly filling the upper floors with smoke.  Firemen burst in from the Ann Street side and quickly attended to patrons who had collapsed or were too confused in the immense labyrinth of bizarre objects to escape.


A fireman named William McNamara is credited with single-handedly evacuating many patrons of the museum, not to mention some of the performers who regularly lived there.  From the New York Sun: “Knowing that [some performers] occupied apartments on the third floor, he rushed thither and burst open the doors.   Finding the rooms empty he ascended to the next floor  and succeeded in bringing down the ladies assembled in the dressing rooms there – Miss Swan, the Giantess, and Miss Zuruby Hannus, the Circassian girl.”

Below: Anna Swan, ‘the Giantess’ who lived at the museum, was successfully rescued


Many of the wax figures from the third floor were hurled out the windows. One peculiar item captured the imagination of the crowd — the wax depiction of Jefferson Davis, dressed in a woman’s petticoat.  (It was rumored that the former president of the Confederacy has attempted to escape dressed as a lady.)

NYT:  “One [rescuer] had Jefferson Davis’ effigy in his arms and fought vigorously to preserve the worthless thing, as though it were a gem of rare value. On reaching the balcony the man, perceiving that either the inanimate Jefferson or himself must go by the board, hurled the scarecrow to the iconoclasts in the street. As Jefferson made his perilous descent, his petticoats again played him false, and as the wind blow them about, the imposture of the figure was exposed.”

NYS: “When the Jefferson Davis petticoated figure was recognized by the crowd, it was seized, kicked, knocked and finally hanged to an awning frame [in front of St. Paul’s Church], amid the derisive and contumelious epithets of the persons engaged in this pastime.”

More seriously a great number of artifacts from the Revolutionary War were incinerated in the fire. “Valuable mementos of Washington, Putnam, Greene, Marion, Andre, Cornwallis, Howe, Burr, Clinton, Jefferson, Adams, and other eminent men which should have been carefully stored in a fire-proof vault, yesterday smoldered in the heat….” [NYT]

barnum's museum burns 1865

The museum’s impressive collection of taxidermy — monkeys, lions, elephants, zebras — were swallowed up by smoke and collapsed into the inferno.

But the museum also had a great many living animals — snakes, pigs, dogs, and even a kangaroo and an alligator. And, of course, a great many monkeys — “big monkeys, little monkeys, monkeys of every degree of tail, old, grave, gray monkeys, young, rascally, mischievous monkeys, middle-aged, scheming monkeys, and a great many miserable, mangry monkeys.” Most perished in the flames although some escaped into the streets, some never to be found again.

Below: This is Harpers Weekly’s illustration of Barnum’s second fire — see below — but could have tragically captured the events on July 13, 1865.

Harpers Weekly
Harpers Weekly

Remarkably, nobody humans died in the blaze. In fact, few wax depictions of humans perished as many took to rescuing wax figures thinking they were alive.  The fire spread to several surrounding buildings, and soon the entire block was engulfed in flame.

NYT:  “The roof of the Museum had now fallen, and the interior of the building was like the crater of a volcano. A stream of heated air issued from the top, and was borne eastward by the breeze directly over the block, carrying with it light articles, pieces of burning wood, shingles ….

At 1:30 came a crash resounding like the explosion of a powder magazine. The whole wall on the Ann-street side had fallen. A cloud of dust and smoke filled the air, making it dark as twilight, and rendering it impossible to descry objects at short distance.”


Harpers Weely
Harpers Weely



Notable among the surrounding buildings that were damaged was the famous Knox the Hatter at 212 Broadway. Fortunately for the fate of New York,  the Croton Aqueduct water system had been installed two decades earlier, allowing the blaze to be put out with some speed, preventing a repeat of the Great Fire of 1835.

There was a bit a looting, including “two men dressed as soldiers [who] were seen coming out of the shoe-store in Ann Street, each with five or six pairs of shoes under their coats.” And there were false reports that the lion has escaped and was running through the streets.

For years after, people mourned the loss of Barnum’s collection, truly among the greatest in New York City up until that time.  Barnum attempted to relaunch the museum at 539-541 Broadway. but it, too, was destroyed in a fire (pictured below). Then, in 1871, he leased a train depot and called it Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.  (It would later morph into the first Madison Square Garden.)

Finally he just decided to take his collection of acts on the road forming a traveling circus in 1881 with ringmaster James Anthony Bailey.  While the world of entertainment would be changed by their collaboration — Barnum and Bailey’s Circus — most would consider the old American Museum as Barnum’s greatest achievement.

Below: Barnum’s second museum destroyed by fire, which gutted the building on a cold day

Harpers Weekly
Harpers Weekly



New York’s Poignant Memorial to Lincoln’s Death Is In A Very Odd Place

Abraham Lincoln died 150 years ago today in a Washington DC rowhouse, shot and killed by the actor John Wilkes Booth while the president was attending a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater the previous evening.

The news hit the North as some sort of horrible dream.  Confederate general Robert E Lee had just surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse less than a week. The war was over in the minds of many. How could this have happened?

On April 21, Lincoln’s body began a mournful tour of the United States, taken from cities across the country via a funeral train.  Three days later, on April 24, the train with Lincoln’s body pulled into 30th Street Station, the depot which served the Hudson River Railroad back when the train brought passengers down the western side of Manhattan. (We give the details of this vanished station in our podcast on the High Line.)

Funeral of President Lincoln in New-York, April 25th, 1865. (Courtesy of New York Public LIbrary)
Funeral of President Lincoln in New-York, April 25th, 1865. (Courtesy of New York Public LIbrary)

From the New York Sun: “This morning the citizens of New  York are called upon to pay funeral honors to the remains of one whose tragic death, invests the ceremonies with an interest never before felt for any individual, who has occupied the highest office which the suffrages of a free people can confer upon a citizen of the Republic.”

His body was taken to New York City Hall where he lay in visitation for almost an complete twenty four hours. Thousands of New Yorkers came to pay their respects.  In the afternoon of the April 25, his body was brought back to the 30th Street Station and transported to Albany, then to other cities, before its final destination in Springfield, Illinois.


The Hudson River Railroad station is long gone. Standing in its place however is another large structure:  the United States Postal Service mail processing facility at 341 9th Avenue.  Unless you’re a fan of postal history — or you’ve stumbled around the neighborhood after stepping of the High Line — you’ve probably never given this building much notice.

But visit the northern side of this building, and you’ll find the following plaque:


“On this site stood in 1861 the station of the Hudson River Railroad. The first passenger to use it was Abraham Lincoln, who came to New York on February 19, 1861 on his way to his inauguration as President of the United States.  His funeral train left here on April 25, 1865 for Springfield, Illinois.  This tablet placed February 19, 1941 by the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society.”

That’s right — Lincoln was the first honorary passenger to arrive at Cornelius Vanderbilt’s new ‘uptown’ depot! Again the New York Sun, but on February 20, 1861:

“In that strange and dirty locality where the Hudson River R.R. Company have fixed upon their uptown depot, thousands of people began to congregate fully two hours before the hour when the expected train was due…..The great gate of the depot yard through which the train was to enter was guarded by a cordon of police, and outside these limits surged the crowds, unusually patient for a New York crowd awaiting a sensation probably from a general faith that Old Abe could be depended upon to come to time properly.”


Presidential journey : reception of President Lincoln in New York, on the arrival of the special train at the Hudson River Railroad. (Courtesy New York Public Library)
Presidential journey : reception of President Lincoln in New York, on the arrival of the special train at the Hudson River Railroad. (Courtesy New York Public Library)


Here’s a description of the exact same spot, over four years later (courtesy the New York Times):

Outside of the gate of the depot yard, on Tenth-avenue, the immense throng stationed there received in respectful and mournful silence the very brief and unsatisfactory glimpse they gained of the coffin of the dead President. Viewing with anxious eyes the train as it emerged from the gate, and gazing upon the gorgeously decorated car, and uncovering with sincere respect for the hallowed dead, the immense multitude beheld the departure of the train. 

 As the train fairly got into motion and disappeared round the curve, the immense mass of beings, so long kept within bounds, at last burst through all restraint, and the entire vicinity of the depot became the scene of the most extraordinary confusion. The police were totally inadequate to the impossible task of keeping the people in order, for they were carried like drift-wood before the flood as the impatient crowd broke up and started upon their several homeward ways.”

This plaque was placed on the side of the postal facility (called the Morgan Annex) on the afternoon of February 19, 1941, unveiled by the U.S. postmaster Albert Goldman.  The organization who sponsored it, the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, still operates today.




100 years ago today, somebody tried to murder the mayor

John Purroy Mitchel in front of City Hall, one month after the assassination attempt (May 11, 1914, courtesy Library of Congress)

It was an pleasant early afternoon one hundred years ago today when Mayor John Purroy Mitchel boarded an automobile on Park Row carrying other members of his staff, including police commissioner Arthur H. Woods, tax commissioner George V. Mullan and corporation counsel Frank Polk.

Suddenly, a man later identified as Michael P. Mahoney approached the vehicle, pulled out a revolver aimed at the mayor and pulled the trigger.

Mahoney, described as “a wretched, despairing, mentally weak old man” and a bit of a “semi-lunatic,” was an unemployed blacksmith who blamed the mayor for a host of personal grievances. After drifting from city to city, he arrived hopeless in New York, living in a boarding house on East 50th Street.   Later found in his room was a disturbing collection of rantings against a host of prominent citizens and organizations, most notably Andrew Carnegie.

But on this particular day, he meant to off the mayor.  Within his pocket were angry letters to the mayor, although I’m not sure when he intended to present these.

From the New York Times, April 18, 1914

I’ll let the original New York Times incident report narrate the rest:

Suddenly … Woods saw, just over his shoulder, a shabbily dressed man, with scraggy gray beard, lurch up to the street side of the car, draw a revolver from his coat pocket and level it at the Mayor in the rear seat.  In a moment, he had leaped upon the assailant, striking his shoulders with both arms and bearing him to the street. But he was not in time.”

Mahoney’s bullet ended up whizzing by Woods and the mayor, hitting Polk through the chin, shattering the jawbone and instantly dislodging two teeth which flew from his mouth.

“He got me! He shot me in the mouth,” Polk managed to scream.

Below: Frank L. Polk, obviously before the incident (LOC)

The mayor’s cheuffeur leapt to Woods’ aid, wrestling the gun from Mahoney’s hand.

The mayor, meanwhile, was well equipped to defend himself;  in his pocket he carried his own revolver.  After all, the last mayor, William Jay Gaynor, had also been shot by a disgruntled constituent.  “The experience of the last administration teaches us that there are always a few crazy people in every community and no one can foretell what they will do,” Mitchel said.  Luckily, he did not need to use his weapon.

Hundreds soon gathered around the car.  While word inaccurately circulated that the mayor had been assassinated, others leaped upon the would-be murderer, a bizarre heap of bodies upon the sidewalk.  Mitchel, Polk and the rest were then rushed to the basement of City Hall to assess the chaotic and bizarre situation.

Under interrogation later that morning, Mahoney explained why he missed the mayor.  “The trouble is that I didn’t wear my glasses. I’m near-sighted.”

Mitchel’s chauffeur found Polk’s dislodged teeth and later returned them to Polk. He later joked that he would have the teeth mounted in gold.

The front page from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Although Polk would wear a slight facial scar for the rest of his life. it clearly didn’t hinder his career in any way.  He was later Under Secretary of State of President Woodrow Wilson and started a prominent law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell which is still very much in business today.

We talk about this frightening event in our podcast on the Boy Mayor of New York. This blog post has more pictures of Mayor Mitchel, and you can find the podcast here and on iTunes.

The Astor House came tumbling down one century ago

The Astor House was New York City’s first great hotel, opened in 1836 by John Jacob Astor himself, a premier accommodation for the city throughout the 19th century.  But by 1913, it was time to tear it down.

It was a symbolic moment for many older New Yorkers.  As you can tell from the image above, the ancient hotel had a new neighbor:  the Woolworth Building, a symbol of the ‘new’ New York City.  As dozens of more modern hotels opened uptown, the old Astor was greatly reduced, with whole sections partitioned for other uses.

For a little comparison, here’s how the building looked in the 1890s, already minimized in its appearance:

Hotels were now flocking to the Times Square area. In fact, so to did the Astor name, with the beautiful Hotel Astor opening there in 1904.

The hotel might have survived a little longer if not for new subway construction in the area, endangering the foundation of the old building.  On May 29, 1913, the hotel closed its doors, and over the next few weeks, the southern section of the Astor House was torn down.  But not without a bevy of reminiscences from old New Yorkers, and a little teeth-gnashing too of a colder, modern city overtaking the gentle comforts of the old.

And then, there’s this dramatic article from the New York Tribune, depicting a literal farewell between the Astor and its neighbor to the south, St. Paul’s Church:

While this spelled doom for a certain memory of New York, those who liked firesales of sorts could take comfort in liquidation sales from famous shops which operated from the old Astor Hotel, such as the Hilton Company:

This is what the space looked like within a couple months.  By the way, that’s the old Post Office to the right of the picture, a structure that would last another quarter century before it too was demolished in 1939:

In 1915, it was replaced with the Astor House Building, a small suite of office spaces that remains on that street corner to this day.  It’s where the Staples store is

All pictures courtesy New York Public Library. By the way, have you check out their incredible new search function?

How New York City celebrated the FIRST London Olympics

Crowds gather around the steps of New York City Hall to welcome the procession of American Olympic athletes returning from the 1908 games in London. Pictures courtesy Library of Congress.

OLYMPICS ROUNDUP London has hosted the Olympics four times, New York City zero.  The city tried for the current games in an ultimately unsuccessful bid back in 2005. A great many New Yorkers are quite happy to be without an international sporting event in the city. Personally, I would have loved to have seen New York become even more international for a few weeks, although I’m relieved that plans for that monstrous Olympic Village in Queens were never realized.

Outside of that, the closest the city has ever gotten to the Olympics is a little under 300 miles — the distance from New York to Lake Placid, which hosted the 1980 Winter Olympics. Those games featured the now-storied ‘Miracle on Ice‘ match between the USA and the USSR. But did you know that the Russian team completely iced the US team just a few days earlier in an exhibition game played at Madison Square Garden? You can read more about that in my article ‘No Miracle on Ice’ from February 2010.

Although we’ve never hosted the Games, when it comes to events before and after the Olympics, New York City’s all over them. Randall’s Island has hosted several Olympic trials, including one of the most famous at all, the track and field events from 1936 which produced sports legend Jesse Owens. You can hear all about it in my 2008 podcast on the history of Randall’s Island and the 1936 Olympic Trials. [Here’s the blog post or you can download it directly from here.]

Around the same time, Robert Moses commissioned Astoria Pool with the explicit purpose of hosting Olympic swimming trials. That 1936 event, featuring its dramatic diving platform, produced several American gold medalists. You can read more about Astoria Pool in an article from just a few months ago — Nostalgia for Astoria Pool

Of course, a great many New Yorkers were entirely unhappy with any participation in the 1936 Olympic Games, given that they were being held that year in Berlin, in the heart of Nazi Germany. A concerted effort by politicians (including Fiorello LaGuardia), religious leaders and athletes to boycott the games was met with defeat, but in the summer of 1936, a group of Jewish athletes competed in a ‘counter-Olympics’. For more information, check out the blog post Boycott the Olympic Games!

And finally, here are some pictures of the 1908 Olympic athletes reception ceremonies, held in New York on the team’s return in August from London’s very first Olympic Games..

And finally, here’s a swell photograph — no other adjective to describe it — of the U.S. Olympic team from 1908, posing with President Theodore Roosevelt a week after the New York festivities. Is it just me or does it look like half the team is comprised of middle-aged bankers?

The most successful American at the 1908 games was New Jersey track-and-field dynamo Mel Sheppard, pictured below as he crossed the finish line for a gold medal in the 1500-meter. Take note of the man in the top hat on the side of the track.

Water features: New York’s first fountains, now with music

The very first decorative fountain in New York City was the City Hall fountain, unveiled on October 14, 1842 during the ceremony for the opening of the Croton Acqueduct, the sophisticated series of pipes and reservoirs that provided New Yorkers with their drinking water. The fountain, which propelled water 50 feet in the air, was not only an embodiment of the Croton’s abundant supply,  it was a celebration of the city’s growing wealth.

As the first burst of water sailed into the air, the New York Sacred Music Society sang an ode specially written by George Pope Morris*, a publisher and poet best known perhaps for first publishing Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’. The song was called ‘The Croton Ode’ and featured the zesty lyric:

Water leaps as if delighted, 
While her conquered foes retire! 
Pale Contagion flies affrighted 
With the baffled demon, Fire!

The font runneth over. Soon New Yorkers were so accustomed to the abundance of water that George Templeton Strong remarked, “Taking a shower bath upside down is the last novelty.”

 Alfred Emanuel Smith said in 1910 that “the spurting of the (then) new fountain, finished for the occasion, was the official proclamation to all New York that the Croton water was ‘turned on’.”

But wait! Didn’t Union Square also have a fountain?, you might ask.

The uptown park, from a design by Samuel Ruggles, opened in 1839 — before the City Hall fountain debuted — and was indeed planned to have a central fountain.

Mostly likely it was built around the same time — I believe it was even ‘turned on’ at the same time — and, of course, it also pulled its water from the Croton source. We can call it a draw, but given the pomp and circumstance, it seems New Yorkers of the day considered the City Hall water feature to be paramount over its uptown companion.

*Mr. Morris’ most popular song, written in 1837, was called ‘Woodman, Spare That Tree!’ You can read the entire ‘Croton Ode’  here.

Illustration courtesy NYPL

‘Mad Men’ notes: The rock gods of Forest Hills, Queens

WARNING The article contains a few spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC, so if you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode.

Lusty groupies, ample drug intake, smoky hallways and deafening rock music. One might have thought last night’s ‘Mad Men’ — partially centered around the backstage antics of a Rolling Stones concert — was taking place at Shea Stadium, where the Beatles famously performed to their largest audience in 1965. Or maybe that was Madison Square Garden, the one on Eighth Avenue and 50nd Street, where Marilyn Monroe sang happy birthday to John F. Kennedy in 1962?

No, that mad, bacchanalian event took place at an esteemed tennis club — the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens.

Organized in New York in the 1890s, the tennis organization and social club quickly outgrew various venues in Manhattan and made their way to Queens. The momentary inconvenience of relocating to an outer borough was swiftly forgotten when the venue opened in 1914, a sumptuous series of grand courts, manicured lawns and a spectacular Tudor-style clubhouse designed by Grosvenor Atterbury* and John Almay Tompkins. A later court addition would provide seating for 14,000 spectators.

The clubhouse reflected the style of  homes in nearby Forest Hills Gardens, also planned by Atterbury as a private, upper class community. To this day, the ‘cottage community’ is one of Queens most exclusive neighborhoods.

Below: A vigorous match between Maurice McLoughlin and Norman Brookes in 1914.  The larger court would not be built for several more years. Courtesy NYPL

The grounds were so abundant that it drew the U.S. Open from Newport, Rhode Island, in 1915, and they remained here until 1987. In fact, for most of the 20th century, the tennis club became the American capital for the sport, seeing victories by sports icons like Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Althea Gibson and Billie Jean King. Alfred Hitchcock even filmed a pivotal scene in ‘Strangers On A Train’ here.

Tying in some of these themes of this season of ‘Mad Men’, there was even a scandal involving the exclusion of black and Jewish members from the club in the 1959, a scandal that involved an under-secretary from the United Nations.

But the appeal of a large and vibrant permanent outdoor venue soon drew, shall we say, less buttoned-up events. The Forest Hills Music Festival was a weekend precursor to New York’s many outdoor concert events today, bringing modern stars to the courtyards and giving this upper crust cloister a taste of counter-culture and teen-fueled rock and roll. One of its organizers was Ron Delsener, later to become a renown concert promoter in the New York area.

Beginning in the late 1950s, concert events were staged on the court itself. At first, the venue drew acts like the Kingston Trio, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Barbra Streisand, and even Woody Allen with a stand-up performance. But not of those performers brought the frenzy quite like the Beatles, who played two nights in late August 1964 and drew such passionate crowds that their helicopter had to land on the court itself, their fans separated from the performance area by an eight-foot fence.

Forest Hills was known for its ungainly crowds. Bob Dylan performed there in August 1965 and was booed by audience members outraged that he would deign perform with electric accompaniment, “betraying the cause of folk music,” according to music historian Tony Glover.

So with all that in mind, imagine the passionate crowds which awaited the shaggy ragamuffins from Dartford, the Rolling Stones, on July 2, 1966, appearing in the United States just as radio stations were buzzing with their number one song, ‘Paint It Black‘.

After three opening acts (including the Trade Winds), the Stones played ten songs at Forest Hills (pictured above), including ‘Lady Jane’, ‘Get Off My Cloud, and of course ‘Satisfaction’, to a crowd of 9,400 people.Yes, believe it or not, they didn’t sell out the venue, but that’s because the most expensive seats (an unheard-of $12.50!) went unsold, and the temperature for the outdoors concert was in the high 90s.

But those that were in attendance were frenzied enough that 250 cops were deployed to the show, armed with tear gas and nightsticks, holding back frothing audiences of young people sent “into peroxsyms” by the British stars. “A dozen youngsters willfully broke through the police line,” according to the Times. “Within seconds the park lights went up and the Rolling Stones’ helicopter took off into the night.”

Far from the maddening crowd, members of the band hit the club circuit in Manhattan, first Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village, and then Ondine’s at 59th Street, where they were wowed by the energy of a young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix.**

And here’s some further context you should keep in mind. That was the summer of 1966. The biggest American musical artist that year was actually two young sons from Forest Hills, Queens — Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel — and their album The Sounds of Silence would become the biggest album of the year.

Believe it or not, the tennis club lost its bid recently to become a New York landmark.

Top picture courtesy the Rego-Forest Preservation Council

*Mr. Atterbury also played a significant role in the renovation of New York’s City Hall in the early 1900s. We have a ball with Grosvenor in our City Hall podcast from 2009

**There seems to be a little confusion here. Keith Richards bios recall Cafe Wha?, while the diary of Bill Wyman mentions Ondine’s. Hendrix played at both venues a few times, so either (or even both) is possible. Keep in mind, everybody was probably stoned.