Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Appalachian or Harlem Farmhouse? Regardless of the condition, the tenements inthe background should give it away.

Once upon a time, on the isle of Manahatta, amongst the somewhere between 300 and 1200 Lenape who made what would become some of the most expensive real estate in the world a full time home, there were more eco – systems than what exists in Yellowstone Park.  There were deer, cougars, eagles, egrets and bears (not the picnic basket stealing kind).  In her book The Measure of Manhattan, author Marguerite Holloway sums up all this nature with some surprising figures for those of us who are used to and need the concrete.  Among 10,000 species (not including insects, molds, mosses or micro-organisms), there sandy beaches, eelgrass meadows, red-maple hardwood swamps, grassland and pine – scrub oak barrens there were 21 lakes or ponds and 66 miles of streams” she writes.  I like nature, don’t get me wrong, but I love that it is somewhere else, especially the molds and mosses.  I am not alone with these sentiments either.  What I am astounded by is the fact that change did happen so quickly considering the big picture of history but also that it once was. Change did not happen in an instant and there were vestiges of this islands rural past late into the 19th century.

This is the 1867 map of Manhattan showing the northwestern corner of Central Park.  Although the park would not be officially complete until 1871, they knew what was to be.  The items that are missing are any reference to what would become Morningside Park or any suggestion that the topography there is a cliff.  This cliff and very steeply sloped area was considered to be too “severe” for any extension of the street grid.  Although New Yorkers had become adept in getting rid of natural obstacles by the mid – 19th century, the area will be deemed unsuitable for residential development and ripe for conversion into a park.  

 These are from the 1885 map showing the soon to be completed Morningside Park.  The gentle curve of the Ninth Avenue Elevated makes its way over to Eighth Avenue along 110th street.  With the El bypassing of the plateau known as Morningside Heights, residential development was slow to blossom but not the resented institutional as the Heights became home to an insane asylum, a hospital and an orphanage.  Notice that there is no station at 110th street yet as it was believed the tracks were to high for a station to be placed and that Morningside Avenue is called Ninth Avenue.   

In 1867, Andrew Haswell Green, the Commissioner of the Central Park project (it was called the Greensward Plan after all) recommended the park idea.  The City had taken control of the land in 1870 and a design competition was held in 1871.  No one got the contract as the Board of Commissioners of Public Works rejected all the design proposals submitted, including the scheme introduced by the heroes of Central Park Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Their plan included a connecting park between the new Morningside Park and Central Park but this plan was not to be - what with the El in the way.  Architect Jacob Wrey Mould, whose floral and fauna carvings are all over the staircases leading down to Bethesda Terrace in Central Park was hired to re do the Olmsted and Vaux plans and work began in 1883.  Unfortunately Mould died in 1886 before work was completed and in 1887 Olmsted and Vaux were brought in to complete the project.

This is the 1868 map showing a section of the Harlem Creek. This is one of the streams and creeks that made up that 66 miles of waterways in this island.  It entered the island between 106th and 107th streets and the East River. It flowed over to what is now Central park and created a swamp at the bottom of a rise, a place called McGowan's pass. McGowan's pass was home to a Tavern, The Black Horse, owned by McGowan which was a favorite stopping off place of George Washington after the Revolution.  The creek then flowed north between 5th and 6th avenues and turned west just north of 116th street ultimately disappearing around Eighth Avenue and 122nd Street.  The creek had branches off of it in several places and was known as a great place to fish.  The Native Americans used it and so did the first Europeans to settle up in what Peter Stuyvesant called in 1658"Nieuw Haarlem".  The little village had a name change after 1664 when the British took over, they called the village just "Harlem". The Lenape called the area Muscoota.

This is a farmhouse along side what is left of the creek.  Note the newly minted tenements in the distance on the left, going north and west.  Muscoota really referred to the Harlem Plains, a mostly flat area where the soil was great and could support various crops as well as being an area abundant with wildlife.  The rise in the west around the area became Morningside, Saint Nicholas and Colonial (now Jackie Robinson) Parks.  The south western corner of the area, now 110th street and Morningside Drive, was a perfect place for the first settlers to build as they had the protection of a cliff at their back, not an open field.  In other words, it was harder to launch a sneak attack from the west.  So, given the location of the house, it is likely that the house was not there for the village of "Nieuw Haarlem" but was there for the village of Harlem.  This photo dates from 1893.

1868 map showing where the the house would be.  The map detail shows a five block area from 115th to 120th street (the bottom of the orchard) from 5th Avenue on the right over to 6th Avenue on the left. The house was on the north side of the creek.

This is the 1867 map which for some reason has more information than the 1868 map, except the creek is missing.  The land is owned by Samson Benson and this is indicated on both maps. The little square right above the name "Wm. Zeis" is the house.

This the 1885 map indicating the house and what is left of the creek. The house is the yellow rectangle between 58 and 56 west 118th street, so I am guessing the house was eventually known as 57 West 118th.  The branch that once broke off from the main stream is indicated as well with dotted lines near the bottom left corner.  The number 602 refers to the block. The land has been divided up into lots but there is nothing there . . . yet.

Monday, December 16, 2013

What is this, looks like a wine cellar. It is not.

Is it a medieval prison or a wine cellar under some villa in Tuscany?  The brick work is very middle 19th century so we can rule out anything medieval.  Well I will tell you that it is here, it is on Park Avenue as a matter of fact and it ain't no wine cellar.  In 1831 a company called the New York & Harlem River Railroad began running streetcars hauled by horses up Fourth Avenue from Prince Street. Originally it went as far north as Union Square but eventually it was going to go further.  The population of this fair city was growing and that population had only one way to move and that was up this long thin island.  Horse cars was one way to move people; however, as you can imagine the process of getting uptown was long and you only moved as fast as the beast of burden did.  Sometimes the beasts did not come back downtown . . .

By 1832 the New York & Harlem River Railroad had moved all the way up to 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue and by 1836 to this larger  castle-like facility between Madison and Fourth Avenues bounded by 26th and 27th streets.  By this point the NY&HRR is running steam engines, however, in 1858 a ban will be put into place as to how far south a steam engine can go. The risk of an exploding steam engine, as these things had the unfortunate propensity of every now and then doing that, was to great to bring into a populated area.  The limit will be set at the once upon a time wilderness of 42nd street. This print is from the Valentine's Manual and is dated 1860. On the lower right, that is a train car being pulled by a team of 4 horses, the horses are pulling more than just this one car.  The engine was removed at a facility at 42nd Street and 4th Avenue.  In the center of the print, the smaller conveyance is a horse car and the building eventually became P.T. Barnum's Greco Roman Arena and then Frank Gilmore's Garden Arena. This is the great grand father of the current Madison Square Garden.  

This is the what is known today as the Park Avenue Tunnel.  It is now a one way car tunnel starting at 33rd Street and feeding into the Park Avenue viaduct around Grand Central Terminal.  It did not however start as a tunnel, it started as an open cut beginning at 33rd Street.  Remember that this was a horse drawn world and I do not know how plentiful horses were but this island I call home was once a great deal hillier, so New Yorkers have been trying to flatten this rock for centuries.  This open cut went through a hill named for the local once upon a time land owner, the Murray family.  The horses pulling the horse cars could not get over the hill without seriously shortening their service life.  Eventually steam engines are plying the open cut. The City of New York had required the addition of bridges at the cross streets and soon after the steam engine ban went into effect, the open cut was covered and turned into a tunnel. Plantings were placed on the tunnel roof and thus the name Park Avenue is applied to 4th Avenue north of 33rd Street. South of 33rd is Park Avenue South.  This is a picture of the tunnel with street car tracks and a station within the tunnel. 

By 1871, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had become incredibly wealthy in shipping and by starting what would eventually grow into the Staten Island Ferry, had put together his uber-railroad, when he became majority stock holder in various smaller roads.  Amongst them was the Hudson River Railroad, The New York & Harlem River Railroad and a small upstate line with the name New York Central. He believed that people needing to travel by rail would come up to the wilds of 42nd Street; his peers tried to talk him out of it but he knew that the city would grow, could only grow, up the island and with a build and they will come attitude gave us the first, and immediately inadequate, of 3 Grand Centrals.  This put an end to the horse drawn train cars under Park Avenue.

  This was the glass and steel train shed on the north side of the station.  Impressive, is it not. It had been influenced by the old Crystal Palace located where Bryant Park is now, and this influenced McKim, Mead & White in their design of the late great Pennsylvania Station.

This is the north facade of the train shed and that is Park Avenue, with tracks and dirt all over it.

This is the tunnel under Park Avenue. The tunnel existed as far back as the mid 1870's but it went only as far south as 59th. Notice the over-abundance of ventilation holes as this was built for steam - don't let the 3rd rail fool you.  The tunnel was also built with stations for passengers at 59th, 72nd and 86th Streets.  The horse cars were a slight improvement over walking but the trains were a huge improvement over the horse cars. Neighborhoods will blossom as the stations will spark development.

86th Street was on the grid prior to the grid map being published. It was a road to the Hells Gate Ferry and still was when this map was printed in 1885.  The 86th Street station was accessed by a little structure in the center island, now marked by 2 steel emergency exit doors.  There were 2 more stations north of this.  The obvious one is 125th Street. The other one is not as obvious.

 Again a detail from the 1885 map and this is the station at Park Avenue and 110th Street.  The platforms were up on the viaduct, as the tracks come out of the tunnel at 97th Street at what was once called Mount Prospect (I guess that the Harlem Plains would be the "prospect"). This means that the station facility was within the viaduct.

These are 2 views from inside the pedestrain arch on the north side of 110th Street.  The door is a gate with rusted metal panels large enough to stuck my hand through. This was the main entrance to the station. There are stairs, probably on both sides, at the end of this corridor. 


This is the eastern side of the viaduct. The arch on the left is at street level but I am not sure it was a pedestrian entrance, maybe a carriage entrance but I am not sure.  The scars of were the stairs would have been are plainly visible.  Did a passenger go back inside or were the tracks raised after the closing of the station? The tracks were raised so it is possible that were the gate is would have been a small staircase up to platform level. But what is there now?

There are scars of something above this arch. This is where the stairs come out of. Perhaps a cast iron and glass canopy? In the keystone above the arch, does that not look like a weather beaten  . . . something? A corporate logo perhaps?

I stuck my camera into the little window under the arch in above picture.  It was pitch black but this is a back of a staircase.

There is a light at the top of the stairs. This is again the eastern side and the holes on either side as well as the concrete patch work indicate that there was once something there.

This is the western side that does contain a maintenance / emergency entrance / exit staircase.  Dramatic with the train, right?

This is the map from 1916. The station is there but not for very much longer. It appears that the need for these stations will not be needed.  There already had been the 3rd and 2nd Avenues where in place by the early 1880's and we will have the Lexington Avenue subway running by 1918 so the East Side was well served and the New York Central did not need all of those stops, even if they would have been incredibly convenient. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

United Palace And The 4 Other Loew's Wonder Theaters

The House. Loew's 175th Street / United Palace. Photo: Tinseltoes

This unbelievable jewel, this incredible space that only could have constructed at a certain time in history, I boastfully declare could have only been built in New York City.  I know that other cities had places like this but New York’s where the biggest and the most extravagant.  This was a neighborhood palace, bestowed upon the city along with so many long gone temples to the motion picture.  A place that not only took your breath away but was entirely geared to wrap the patron within another world. Whether it was a baroque opera house, a De Medici villa, or a chunk of Versailles, the entertainment did not end when the picture finished or the stage show ended.  The space itself was part of the show. 

The balcony at the United Palace / Loew's 175th Street. Photo:  Tinseltoes
When Loew's divested itself of this theater it was 1969 and the era of large single screen houses was  At that time the possibilities for a place like that was supermarket, demolition or church.  Triplexing and the even worse “quading” of these spaces had not come into vogue yet but were on the horizon.  Reverend Ike purchased it for $1 and Loew's got a huge tax break.  To Reverend Ike's credit, he did not alter anything in the space.  He added quotes from the bible but that was about it. He even had the research done to find opening day paint colors.  The company that did the interior decorating for almost all of Thomas Lamb's theaters, Rambusch Studios, is still around. 
very much over.

House right and the proscenium at the United Palace.  Photo: Leo Sorel
The idea for these "Wonder Theaters" actually began with Paramount.   Paramount hit a financial bump, this is sometime in the late '20's, and the idea was dropped.  This part my memory is a little fuzzy but the Robert Morton Wonder Organs (all of these big houses had huge Wurlitzer type machines - basically analog synthesizers) that were ordered for the Paramount theaters had been built.  These were the biggest organs that Morton had manufactured.  Loew's (the parent company of MGM) bought them and decided to build these "Wonder" theaters in NYC.

There was one in every borough except Staten Island.  There were 5, all still standing and all designed by three of the greatest theater architecture firms ever - Thomas Lamb did Loew's 175th, Rapp & Rapp did the Kings in Brooklyn and the Loew's Jersey in Jesrey City and John Eberson did the Paradise in the Bronx and the Valencia in Queens.  They were called Wonder Theaters" not only because of their organ installations but because they were to be the last word in movie theaters.  All were built with stages, all initially included Vaudeville as part of the evening.  

 Loew's Paradise on the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx, the Grand Concourse.  The Concourse is so very Champs-Élysées that the zoning laws forbid the installation of a marquee over the sidewalk.

A cherub watches the action on the screen and stage at the Paradise.

The Paradise has been beautifully restored, even after being triplexed back in the mid '70's and a fire in the stage house 20 years ago. The Valencia is a church, which probably saved this theater, however there was one thing done to this ire-replaceable space that is almost unforgivable. The architect, John Eberson, was famous for designing "atmospherics" - the side walls were built out and the ceiling curved into the recesses and was painted usually a sky blue, little lights imbedded in to the smooth plaster simulated stars and clouds were projected onto this "sky".  The church hung a chandelier from the middle of the sky.  The organ at the Paradise was removed prior to the restoration and moved to the Loew’s Jersey were it now rises up on it’s lift and plays (the original organ at the Jersey had been removed years ago and moved to a theater in Santa Barbara).   

The Valencia soon after completion.  The orchestra pit was on a lift but had a separate lift for the piano. Photo: CharmineZoe

The Valencia, a recent picture showing the chandelier hanging from the sky.  Photo: Scouting NY

Although the Valencia was called the most successful Loew’s theater in Queens, it closed in 1977 and became and still is the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People church. Other than the ceiling light fixture, the church covered up any (and there were enough) nude statues.  Loew’s had dropped vaudeville in the mid ‘30’s so the orchestra pit came to be considered wasted space.  At some point in the ‘50’s, the pit and the organ lift were covered over with concrete so an additional couple of rows could be installed (this sort of thing was such a common occurrence).  Unfortunately the organ console was buried under the concrete.  It was finally removed and now resides in a theater in San Diego. 

Opening day shows included Frills and Fancies’ a revue, Wesley Eddy & his Kings of Syncopation, and the Chester Hale Girls along with the Loew's grand Orchestra. Photo: BrooklynGil
Loew’s Kings on Flatbush is the last of the Wonder Theaters to be saved.  It was last used as a theater in 1977.  Loew’s had done nothing to the interior décor from the time it opened in 1929 up to their divestiture of this beautiful space.   Like the Jersey, this theater was designed buy the Chicago based firm Rapp & Rapp.  This firm did quite a bit of work for Paramount (The New York Paramount in Times Square and the Brooklyn Paramount) but did only 4 theaters for Loew’s.

Stairs to the balcony at Loew's Kings. Photo: Tinseltoes
The kings was built with a seating capacity of 3676, 2798 of those seats on the orchestra floor. This was a departure for Rapp & Rapp as they normally did not do that, most of there work contained the traditional balcony.  What is not a departure for them is the style of the theater, which is sort of baroque gone beserk.  Almost every theater they did was based on spaces at Versailles.  I am not saying that they were not beautiful, I am just saying 
 Versailles played a heavy role in their work.
Behind the scenes The Kings  had a gym and basketball court located in the basement, which were provided for the use of the theater staff.

Even with the orchestra pit raised, the stage is a mess. There were 2 elevator platforms on the stage that look as if they collapsed in to the depths below.  All the white areas indicate water damage to the plaster work.

This is what happened to the Wonder Organ at the Kings, according to the New York City chapter of the American Guild of Organists (yes they got a guild):

In 1974, Loew's donated the Kings' Wonder Morton to the NYC-owned Town Hall in Manhattan. The organ was played for the last time in the Kings on Sunday morning, January 27, 1974, with Lee Erwin at the console and about 200 organ buffs in the audience. The American Theater Organ Society and its Greater New York chapter took care of the Morton's removal, which cost about $15,000, including transportation to storage facilities owned by NYC. Unfortunately, while the organ was under NYC's protection, most if not all of the organ's esssential parts mysteriously "disappeared," and only the console remained. In 1998, the console was sold to Paul and Linda Van Der Molen of Wheaton, IL, who had the console rebuilt and connected to the four-manual, 26-rank theatre organ in their residence

The Kings, after decades of abandonment, water damage, vandalism and false starts, the theater were Barbara Streisand worked as an usher once upon a time, is finally getting it’s long over due restoration. 

Amazing is that the light fixtures are intact at the Kings. Photo: Tinseltoes
Although the 5 theaters had different architects, Harold Rambusch Studios worked on most of them.  In 1979 a documentary was made about the Kings called Memories of a Movie Palace.  It has interviews with the last manager who served in that capacity for over 30 years and is still alive (she just turned 100), the last organist who came up on the empty lift, and the last projectionist who had worked there for decades as well.  During the interview the projectionist broke down and sobbed at the condition of this theater.  Harold Rambusch had been interviewed before the theater was in horrible shape.  His firm hired the first woman to graduate from Columbia University’s school of architecture, Ann Dornin.

As for the United Palace, it is the only one of the 5 theaters that has it’s original organ, it is playable and the theater is in great shape.  Although the interior is incredibly similar to a theater he did in Syracuse and the exterior is repeated on his now ruined Loew’s Pitkin, this is one of Thomas Lamb’s greatest works.  I read somewhere once long ago that the style could be referred to as “Hashish nightmare”. I find that a bit harsh but if there was ever a Baroque / Rocco period in Asia, it would have looked like this.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

This is the point, in my opinion, having just missed this era and only remembering remnants of this abstract masterpiece, when the Times Square area looked the best.  A cornucopia of neon trying to deny the night at the same time needing the darkness so the bright brash colors could stand out.  So much of this is gone, the longer I look at it the sadder I get.  As the city prepares to lose yet another what was a theater (the 1910 Columbia Theater), some of us are reminded of what once was.  This vista was one of the multitude of reasons why people came to New York, to see this. I passed a brand new Pinkberry today on Broadway at 94th street. What had been there before, for as long as I can remember, was an antique store.  Maybe antique is kind, maybe it was junk. The store was dusty, kept strange hours, smelled like cat (not in a good way) but the store and the storefront was unique.  Now it is a Pinkberry, it looks like it was ripped out of a mall and dropped onto Broadway.  That storefront no matter how small, was part of the mosaic that makes New York special.

The Columbia Theater and the building it was built with are most certainly part of that mosaic.  Most of us do not recall the the name Columbia being used as the name of this house.  Very few of us remember the second or third name bestowed upon this house and for many years it was known as the Embassy 2, 3 and 4 (the theater known as just The Embassy, or Embassy 1, was on 7th Avenue between 47th and 46th streets).  Names come and go, the Embassy moniker was re-applied to what had been a newsreel theater during World War II. The Columbia was renamed Mayfair in 1930,  then the DeMille in 1960 and eventually it was Embassy(ed).
 The site in May of 1909.  This looking at the north east corner of 47th and Seventh Avenue from the south west corner.

This is on the same day but further down 7th Avenue at 46th Street. All of this will soon be gone and replaced by the Valhalla of Vaudeville  -  B.F. Keith's Palace Theater as well as the what will be known as the Embassy 1 and now the Times Square Visitor Center. 

Originally opened on January 10th, 1910 as the Columbia Theatre at the northeast corner of 47th Street and Broadway inside an office building.  The office building was home to the Columbia Amusement Company, one of the larger burlesque circuits.    In 1910, the term burlesque had not grown into what it would become associated with.  Instead the emphasis was on comedy, musical numbers and beautiful showgirls.  The 1800 seat theater was designed by noted theatre architect William McElfatrick in a sort of Beaux Arts style.  Above the proscenium arch, there had been a mural called “The Goddesses of the Arts,” painted by Arthur Thomas.  The Columbia was also noted as one of the first theaters to install a ventilation system designed to remove tobacco smoke from the air.  Although it wasn't airconditioned, at least you didn't leave smelling like a Chesterfield.

The Columbia's Auditorium.  The two balcony configuration was almost typical of McElfatrick's designs.

“The Goddesses of the Arts,” by Arthur Thomas.

Walter Reade bought the Columbia in 1928 and gutted it, leaving no trace of the original.   It reopened in October 1930 with a new name, the RKO Mayfair, movies only and movies with RKO as the studio of origin.

The task of redesigning the space and turn the Columbia into a movie theater was left to my favorite architect Thomas W. Lamb.  Lamb combined the two original balconies into a single balcony.  The auditorium was done in an Art Deco style. Around the same time Lamb had designed one of the five "Loew's Wonder Theaters", now known as the United Palace but once upon a time went by the name "Loew's 175th Street".  If the far east had ever underwent a period where the Baroque was blended with Art Deco, it would have looked like Loew's 175th.  What you can see in this picture, the wall treatment, is not too slightly reminiscent of Lamb had created up at Loew's 175th.

Eventually Loew's took over.  Real air conditioning was added during the redesign.  Well, the sign says the place was air conditioned, "always".  In a pre - TV era, continuous shows from 8:30AM til 2:30AM for the entertainment starved. 

The Mayfair was owned by Brandt Theaters by 1955 when Night of the Hunter had it's New York premier there.  The name Mayfair was not to last and was ultimately changed to the DeMille Theatre, after Cecil B. (well he did play God's voice).  Big world premieres of big pictures, when reserved-seat movies were popular in the early-1960’s included “Spartacus” (1960) “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964) and “Hawaii” (1966).

However, one of the most famous pictures ever made, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in June of 1960. It also had one of the most famous "No one will be admitted after the start of the picture" policy.

This picture was taken by one of the nicest guys to ever put a picture on a blog, Ed Solero.  When I first photographed the Hamilton Theater on 146th Street, it was Mr. Solero who helped put the pictures on the web.  Always interesting and always helpful.  
In late-1976, the theatre became the Mark I, II and III. The triplexing was crudely done by putting a wall dividing the balcony down the center, similar to the degradation of Loew's 83rd. 
It became the Embassy 2,3,4 Theatre in December 1977 when Guild Enterprises took it over. (The Embassy 1 Theatre was on Broadway at W. 46th Street, next to the Palace Theatre).  In 1997, after the Embassy 1 was closed for conversion into the Times Square Visitor Center, this theatre was renamed Embassy 1,2,3 Theatre. The Embassy 1,2,3 Theatre was one of the last Times Square movie houses to close.

Another Ed Solero picture of the Embassy 2, 3 & 4. It was shuttered for several years and was a mega NYC souvenirs / t-shirt shop. Parts of the Mayfair's lobby ceiling was visible.  There was a Famous Dave’s BBQ Restaurant in there at one point. The theater had been gutted again  and by May 2013 every thing was out so demolition could begin.  One more piece of the mosaic lost forever.