Tag Archives: Grand Army Plaza

PODCAST REWIND: A Short History of Prospect Park

PODCAST REWIND Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s biggest public space and home to the borough’s only natural forest, was a sequel for Olmsted and Vaux after their revolutionary creation Central Park. But can these two landscape architects still work together or will their egos get in the way? And what happens to their dream when McKim, Mead and White and Robert Moses get to it?

ALSO: what classic Hollywood movie actor is buried here?

ORIGINALLY RELEASED JUNE 5, 2009

THIS IS A SPECIAL ILLUSTRATED PODCAST!  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible with AAC/M4A files, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. (This will work as a normal audio file even if the images don’t appear.)

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Some images of Prospect Park from 1895 to 1920 from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The boat house, photographed in 1910, but could very well be a picture from today with an Instagram filter!

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Anybody for a game of polo on the lawn? Pictured here in 1896.

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The entrance to Prospect Park, with Grand Army Plaza (a fairly new edition in this photograph from 1900) and the Mount Prospect Reservoir on the hill.

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Sheep attending to the meadow in a photograph (from early 20th century) by Robert Bracklow.

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You can thank McKim, Mead and White and the rising preference of neoclassicism in the Gilded Age for the abundance of statuary in Prospect Park (pictured here in 1903).

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The park is an arresting synthesis of Olmsted and Vaux’s original vision (as seen in this picturesque view from 1909), McKim, Mead and White’s neoclassical alterations, and Robert Moses’ pragmatic additions from the mid 20th century.

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A former feature of the lake called Fire Island, named for its flamboyant flowers!

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FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE HISTORY OF PROSPECT PARK, CHECK OUT OUR PODCAST ON THE HISTORY OF PARK SLOPE.

“To the memory of the Brave Soldiers and Sailors Who Saved the Union”

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

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on the Upper West Side has been the centerpiece for Memorial Day commemoration for decades.  Unless you actually live by it, you probably have not been there in years, if at all. It’s a vastly under-appreciated landmark, occasionally vandalized and certainly in need of work.

It owes its form to the great Gilded Age fervor for classical beauty and the aesthetic appeal of Beaux-Arts architecture. Grand war memorials were sprouting up all over New York during this period, most notably he Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza (1892) and Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene (1908).  Then there’s Grant’s Tomb (1897), which owes its existence more to the General’s military career and not so much his scandal-filled presidency.

And similar monuments of such colossal proportion were erected in other cities including Hartford (1886), New Haven (1887), Allentown (1899) Indianapolis (1902), Baltimore (1909)  Syracuse (1910), Pittsburgh (1910), among many others.

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

Monuments are dandy indicators of civic pride but many were inspired by practical necessity. Most Union veterans were in their ’50s and ’60s by this time many of these memorials were planned. Those that grew up after the war– the sons and daughters of war heroes — wanted to recognize the achievements of a previous generation.  Many of these men (Grant being the notable example) were now prominent citizens in New York.

Its also not a coincidence patriotic feelings were swelling during this period due to conflicts like the Spanish-American War which would later demand their own memorials like the powerful Maine Monument, unveiled in 1913.

1915, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
1915, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Riverside Drive might seem a curious place to put a Civil War monument. In fact, its location inspired a bit of a civic war itself from the moment it was first planned in 1893.  “THE MONUMENT FIGHT AGAIN” proclaimed the New York Times in 1895, reporting on a rivalry between  members of the Upper East Side Association and the Upper West Side Association.

I mean, in 1895, didn’t it make sense to place it on Fifth Avenue, the most prominent and wealthy street in the world? Proponents chose Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, the entrance to Central Park, as the ideal spot. “It is rather amusing to hear …. grounds for opposition in view of what was said in front of the Commissioners when the west side men wanted to locate the monument on the Riverside Drive and Seventy-Second Street…..[T]hey charged that the Plaza was not suitable because the monument would be surrounded by buildings that would dwarf it.”

Supports of the Riverside site claimed that the foundations would not be sturdy enough near the park, an amusing remark given the skyscraper boom which would take over Midtown Manhattan in the 20th century.  In particular, naval officers bristled at the Fifth Avenue site which was almost as far from the site of water that one could get in Manhattan.

Had the eastsiders won, we would have gotten a Soldier’s and Sailors Monument that looked like this on the spot of today’s Grand Army Plaza:

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By 1899, years after the project was conceived, proponents of the west side finally won out.  The monument was planned for a spot in the newly developed Riverside Park known as Mount Tom, a “very beautiful little knoll of natural rock,” believed to have been a spot of quiet contemplation for one Edgar Allen Poe (who lived nearby in 1844).  That was at Riverside Drive and 83rd Street.  Eventually that too was deemed inadequate, and the preparations were then moved to the present location at 89th Street.

Given the new location, the monument was redesigned by the firm of Straughton and Straughton as a circular temple adorned with Corinthian columns. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument was officially dedicated on Memorial Day 1902:

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Here are a couple views of its dedication ceremony in 1902:

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

 

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

 

The final monument is absolutely beautiful, of noble design, but was not well constructed.  Repairs were necessary less than five years later, and the structure has gone through several alterations.  This New York Times article gives you a look inside the monument and reviews some current efforts to rescue the building from further deterioration.

The weather’s supposed to be spectacular this holiday weekend, so make that a good excuse to visit this unusual and charming little memorial.

Photo by Renee Bieretz, courtesy the Library of Congress
Photo by Renee Bieretz, courtesy the Library of Congress

 

And finally, a mysterious post card from the New York Public Library collection. Note the caption:

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The Plaza Hotel: From the Champagne Porch to the Black and White Ball

PODCAST REWIND  The Plaza Hotel has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in New York City, a romantic throwback to the last days of the Gilded Age. It epitomized the changes that were arriving on Fifth Avenue, steering away from the private mansions of the moneyed class and towards a certain kind of communal living that was increasingly being seen as acceptable and even preferable.

We take a look at the Plaza’s unusual history, from its days as an upper class ‘transient hotel’ to a party place for celebrities.

Starring: John ‘Bet-a-Million’ Gates, Eloise, Truman Capote and of course the unflappable Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

NOTE: This show was originally recorded in November 2008. The Plaza is currently owned by Sahara India Pariwar.

A special illustrated version of the podcast on The Plaza Hotel (Episode #69) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed, via Stitcher streaming service and of course on iTunes.  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well.

For this and our older episodes (Episodes #3-#68, subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

 

The Plaza Hotel in 1912. Its romantic exterior and sumptuous rooms eased New York's wealthiest class into the habit of hotel living. (Cleaned-up picture courtesy Shorpy)
The Plaza Hotel in 1912. Its romantic exterior and sumptuous rooms eased New York’s wealthiest class into the habit of hotel living. (Cleaned-up picture courtesy Shorpy)

 

By the 1930s, the Fifth Avenue mansions below 59th Street were gone, and the Plaza was joined by other luxury hotels. (Picture courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
By the 1930s, the Fifth Avenue mansions below 59th Street were gone, and the Plaza was joined by other luxury hotels. (Picture courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

 

The first Plaza Hotel was deemed out of fashion and indeed looks quite plain in comparison to the building which would replace it.
The first Plaza Hotel was deemed out of fashion and indeed looks quite plain in comparison to the building which would replace it.

 

We're so used to the Plaza being surrounded by department stores and office buildings. But in fact its first neighbors were mansions as illustrated in this photograph from 1923 (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New  York)
We’re so used to the Plaza being surrounded by department stores and office buildings. But in fact its first neighbors were mansions as illustrated in this photograph from 1923 (Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)
Looking up Fifth Avenue, taken sometime after 1907.  The Plaza peaks over the mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt. (Courtesy Library of Congress)
Looking up Fifth Avenue, taken sometime after 1907. The Plaza peaks over the mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt. (Courtesy Library of Congress)
This picture was taken in 1940. Except for the shoe-shine boy and the automobile, it could have been taken yesterday. (Photograph by Roy Perry, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)
This picture was taken in 1940. Except for the shoe-shine boy and the automobile, it could have been taken yesterday. (Photograph by Roy Perry, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York)

 

Truman Capote and Katherine Graham at the Black and White Ball, 1966
Truman Capote and Katherine Graham at the Black and White Ball, 1966

 

Fans await the Beatles outside the Plaza Hotel 1964 (Courtesy New York Daily News)
Fans await the Beatles outside the Plaza Hotel 1964 (Courtesy New York Daily News)

 

Trader Vic's in the basement of the Plaza (courtesy the blog TikiRoom)
Trader Vic’s in the basement of the Plaza (courtesy the blog TikiRoom)

 

The ballroom of the Plaza, 1907 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
The ballroom of the Plaza, 1907 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

Ten unusual views of Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza

When park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux regrouped after the success of Central Park to design another great park for Brooklyn — encompassing Prospect Hill and the Revolutionary War site Battle Pass — they preserved a greater amount of natural topography than they had in Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean that Prospect Park hasn’t gone through a few radical changes of its own since it opened between the years 1867 and 1873.

Their Grand Army Plaza has experienced few changes since it opened in those years, but the structures around it have certainly changed, presenting some surprising views at the mighty war monuments.

1. Women of the Wellhouse
The caption for this stereoscopic view (taken sometime in the 1870s-80s) calls this a ‘well house’, although it may have also been a a coal storage shed or even an outhouse! Brooklyn’s main reservoir was on Prospect Hill, and the park was constructed partially to protect the water source from encroaching developers.

 

2. Prospect Park Dairy
As they had done in Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux infused the landscape with various romantic, fairytale-like structures, including this dairy house, providing guests with milk straight from the cow. Central Park still has a version of their dairy, but Prospect Park’s was regrettably torn down in the 1930s to make way for the Prospect Park Zoo. (NYPL)

3. Brooklyn Sheep

 Sure, you many know Sheep Meadow in Central Park once had actual sheep grazing — they were considered a rustic design ornament and a natural landscaper — but what happened to the animals after Robert Moses kicked them out in 1934? Like so many trendy things, they moved to Brooklyn! They joined Prospect Park’s already thriving sheep colony (pictured below, from 1903) before moving on to other pastures. (Courtesy LOC)

4. Floral Steps, 1904
The manicured flora that grace these steps predates the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by several years. The stairs are still there today, of course, though unadorned.

5. Drinking Fountains
With water aplenty, Prospect Park has been dotted with drinking fountains since its inception. This rather unusual fountain, from 1938, may still be around, but I doubt you’ll see anybody drinking from it. (Courtesy Dept of Records)

6. Deer Paddock
The zoo also replaced the rather extraordinary Deer Paddock, where the sometimes docile creatures were allowed to wander around. This despite some of them occasionally escaping and running into the surrounding neighborhood (as one adventurous buck did in 1906).

7. Stately Reservoir Tower
High atop Brooklyn’s second highest point on Mount Prospect sits the reservoir tower, only a couple decades old (1893) but looking like a medieval ruin in this image. Date of this picture is unknown, although the ground for the Brooklyn Public Library main branch building was broken in 1912, so it was clearly sometime before then. The Brooklyn Museum is in the distance. [NYPL]

8. And, yes, the Reservoir itself
The reservoir was built here in 1856 and was meant to be included within the park designs. With Flatbush Avenue ultimately cleaving the hill from the rest of the proposal, Olmsted and Vaux left it out. This picture is from between 1910-1920. [LOC]

9. From high above
This bird’s eye view from 1951 illustrates the plaza’s similarities to that of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

10. Library vista
And this view is from two weeks ago! During the Partners In Preservation Open House, the staff at the Brooklyn Public Library main branch led guided tours to the rooftop, offering a very particular take on the plaza. And if my camera had been better, you would see off in the distance the Statue of Liberty, situated several miles away.

Top photo courtesy NYPL

What are the boys of Brooklyn wearing?

Fall fashion in 1912: this lad named Chester enjoys the cool ocean breeze in this stylish suit, modeled here at Sea Gate, on the western end of Coney Island.

A year earlier, in 1911, Chester sports the latest in versatile beach wear, as his mother Mildred ensures not a ray of sunshine will hit her body.

October 1887 — No ragamuffins here! On the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, some well-dressed boys attempt to barter with a street vendor — apples for chestnuts.

Grand Army Plaza, June 1895 — As bike riders stream past him and through the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch, the young biker on the left proves large bows prove no hindrance to sportsmanship.

Click on photos for a larger view….

Photos by Wallace G. Levison, courtesy the Life photo archive

PODCAST: The Plaza Hotel

It got off to a rocky start, but the Plaza Hotel has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in New York City. We take a look at its kooky history, from its days as an upper class ‘transient hotel’ to a party place for celebrities. Starring: Henry Hardenberg, Eloise, Truman Capote and of course the unsinkable Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

The first “Plaza,” as redesigned by McKim, Mead and White, was also a hotel, but it didn’t last long. Opened in 1890, it was demolished in 1905 to make way for the far grander vision of Henry Hardenbergh.

Workmen pause to stand in front of the first Plaza in 1889. Eventually the foundation of the building would not support the lofty plans for the new Plaza, so it had to be entirely torn down.

Believe it or not, here’s The Plaza in the year it opened, 1907! It looks like it’s in the countryside. Note the General Sherman equestrian statue in the foreground.

Two shots of the funeral of John “Bet-a-Million” Gates — who basically bankrolled the construction of the Plaza — pulls up to the entrance (on 59th street) of his famous hotel. It’s particularly interesting to see the development of buildings further west next to the Plaza. (Photo from Flickr, Library of Congress)

One of the Plaza’s immediate appeals was its proximity to both Central Park and the tony residents and luxury hotels of Fifth Avenue. (Picture courtesy of my favorite website Shorpy.)

The elegant Palm Court, site of countless afternoon teas and the smoking rebellion of Mrs. Patrick Campbell. The ornate stained-glass dome would be removed in 1944, replaced with an air conditioning unit.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell, poster child for smokers and women’s rights everywhere

The fabulous Oak Room, probably the most unchanged of the Plaza’s public room, is festooned with Hardenburgh humor in the form of alcohol-related carvings. It was a popular drinking spot for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, George M. Cohen, Bill Clinton and Harrison Ford.

The Beatles and the Dr. Joyce Brothers enjoy a campy moment during an 1964 press conference at the Plaza.

Truman Capote and Katharine Graham greet guests at the totally outrageous Black and White Ball.

Kay Thompson, later the author of the Eloise books, performs here at the Persian Room:

The Palm Court’s stained glass ceiling has returned in the modern renovation.

The Plaza celebrated its 100th anniversary last year with an elaborate ceremony.

Check out the wonderful book At The Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Hotel by Curtis Gathje with many more details on the Plaza’s different and extraordinary rooms. And look below a couple posts for a picture of Barack Obama with the Plaza Hotel in the background!

George W. Bush … on horseback!

Okay nobody may ever honor our current president with a lavish equestrian statue, unless it’s a joke and he’s wearing a cowboy hat. But military tradition and the neo-classical and Beaux-Arts predilictions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries slapped many commanders in chiefs onto a saddle for decoration. New York city has five such statues of four presidents:

The first and most famous is first president George Washington looking down Broadway at Union Square, created by Henry Kirke Brown in 1856 (before the events honored by all subsequent presidential equestrian statues even occurred!)

The arch at Grand Army Plaza hosts two different presidents, placed here in 1896. Although John Duncan (later of Grant’s Tomb fame) would design the arch, the presidents are sculpted by William Rudolf O’Donovan. (The great painter Thomas Eakins meanwhile sculpted the horses!)

The 16th president, Abraham Lincoln rides on the left (although he certainly never fought in any Civil War battles):

And the 18th, Ulysses S Grant:

Grant has a far more flattering depiction on horseback not terribly far away from this one, on a traffic island in Crown Heights (the picture at top), designed by William Ordway Partridge and planted here, also in 1896. As Grant’s Tomb would be opened the next year, clearly Ulysses-mania was in the air!

Finally the 26th president Teddy Roosevelt gets his honor with a politically incorrect bonus — a ‘proud Indian’ and a ‘noble black man’ astride him.

James Earl Fraser sculpted the bronze which was dedicated in 1940. Upon closer inspection of the statue’s unusual characters beside him finds that they are supposed to represent Africa and the Americas, with the two men guiding the former president. Also note that it appears that Teddy is about to reach for a gun, making this by far the most unusual of the presidential equestrian statues in the city.

The statue is placed here because Teddy’s father is one of the founders of the museum, as well as a tribute to Roosevelt’s careers as a historian and explorer.

Roosevelt once justified his slaughter of over 10,000 wild African animals by saying, “I can be condemned only if the existence of the National Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and all similar zoological institutions are to be condemned.”