Friday, September 19, 2014

The Secrets of Gramercy Park (and you don't even need a key)

Gramercy Park

Looking down on Gramercy Park, 1944 (Courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
PODCAST Gramercy Park is Manhattan's only private park, a prohibited place for most New Yorkers. However we have your keys to the history of this significant and rather unusual place, full of the city's greatest inventors, civic leaders and entertainers.

Literally pulled up from swampy land, Gramercy Park naturally appealed to the city's elite, a pocket neighborhood with classic old brownstones so vital to the city's early growth that two streets sprang from its creation -- Irving Place and Lexington Avenue.

Within the story of Gramercy Park there are echoes of modern debates over class and land usage.  The area's creator Samuel Ruggles was a New York developer before his time, perfecting techniques that modern developers are still using to convince both the city and its residents of the importance and vitality of their high-end projects.

At right: Inside the park with Edwin Booth (Photo by Helaine Magnus, courtesy NYHS)

In this show, we give you an overview of its history -- a birds eye's view, if you will -- then follow it up with a virtual walking tour that you can use to guide yourself through the area, on foot or in your mind.  (You can follow along virtually starting here.)  In this tour, we'll give you the insights on an early stop on the Underground Railroad, the house of a controversial New York mayor, a fabulous club of thespians, and a hotel that has hosted both the Rolling Stones and John F. Kennedy (though not at the same time).

ALSO: We tell you the right way to get into Gramercy Park -- and the wrong way.

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

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

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #171: The Keys To Gramercy Park

Below: Looking west onto Gramercy Park, photo between 1909-1915.  You can see both the Flatiron and the Metropolitan Life Tower in the distance. [LOC]


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Samuel Ruggles, the mastermind behind the Union Square and Gramercy Park developments, two parks with drastically different fates.  While Union Square would eventually be considered 'the people's park' and a center of working class protest, Gramercy Park would retain its guarded, exclusive character.

A 1831 map outlining the lands owned and developed by Samuel Ruggles. Lexington Avenue and Irving Place have already been planned by this time. (Courtesy MCNY)

Lands of Samuel B. Ruggles in the Twelth Ward in the City of New York
The 1918 unveiling of Gramercy Park's one permanent resident -- the statue of Edwin Booth. (NYPL)

The esteemed Dr. Valentine Mott who lived (with his large family) at 1 Gramercy Park. (

3 and 4 Gramercy Park from 1935 -- and they look exactly the same today!  The lampposts indicate that this was once the home of former mayor James Harper.  (Photo by Berenice Abbot, NYPL)

A architectural cross-section of 4 Gramercy Park, showing the size of the house.

New York governor and almost-U.S. president Samuel Tilden lived in Gramercy Park. His home would later be transformed into the National Arts Club.

Enjoying a banquet at the National Arts Club in 1908.  As you can see, the membership has always been open to both men and women, a trait few social clubs of the day enjoyed. (NYPL)

The Players Club in 1905.  In this photo the building is mournfully adorned in black crepe in honor of the actor Joseph Jefferson.

The Friends Meeting House in 1965. It would become the Brotherhood Synagogue ten years later. (Courtesy Wurts Brothers, MCNY) 144 East 20th Street. Exterior of Friends Meeting House.

Children within the park, 1944. The Edwin Booth statue stands in the background here (MCNY)

Child drinking from water fountain, Gramercy Park

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whatever happened to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Island?

Midtown New York Skyline Showing Welfare Island, New York.

Welfare Island (once the more enticingly named Blackwell's Island) was New York's depository of human services, once a dour place of horrifying asylums and miserable workhouses.  In the 1960s Mayor John Lindsay was preparing to revitalize the East River island with new housing and increased support for the hospitals there.  Architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee were brought in to rethink the urban space as a largely automobile-free community.

For this grand experiment, all they needed was a name.  Luckily there seemed be a couple prominent figures being egregiously ignored in the city -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor:

From a New York Times editorial, January 30, 1972:

"It is astonishing, and becomes more disgraceful with every passing year, that within the city there is still no memorial to this great New Yorker (except for FDR Drive, a dubious honor).  The opportunity is, however, immediately at hand.  Welfare Island, now slowly undergoing a total reconstruction and rebirth, would take on a new symbolic significance if its name were changed to Franklin D. Roosevelt Island -- or, better yet, to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Island in honor of that extraordinary woman who was even more closely identified with New York City than was the president himself."

By the following year Mayor Lindsay submitted a proposal to re-name Welfare Island for the president and the first lady.  From Jan. 21, 1973:

 It was officially approved later that summer but with a revised name -- Franklin Roosevelt Island.

To the Council, "a witness testified that the name of Welfare Island should be dropped because plans were under way to start marketing this September the thousands of apartments already built and still under construction as part of a $300-million 'new town' designed to replace outdated medical facilities." [source]

Below: The island in April 1961, photo courtesy the New York Fire Department

A Louis Kahn memorial to Franklin Roosevelt was to be built at the south end;  it would take over four decades, but the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park would finally open in 2012.

Wither Eleanor?

She finally did get her own memorial in New York City -- an understated statue tucked away in Riverside Park.

It was unveiled on October 5, 1996 by Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Oddly enough, Hillary regaled the crowd with a story of imaginary conversations she liked to have with Eleanor. "When I last spoke to Mrs. Roosevelt, she wanted me to tell all of you how pleased she is by this great, great new statue."

Top picture courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A new film about New York State Pavilion, the space-age ruin from the World's Fair 1964-65

Many cities have turned the sites of World's Fairs into public places that have endured through the decades.  Chicago's Jackson Park and the Midway were greatly upgraded after their use in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  The odd-looking Sunsphere, a highlight of the Knoxville World's Fair in 1982, is now the city's most recognizable monument.

Nashville has its Parthenon, San Francisco the Japanese Tea Garden.  And perhaps the most famous souvenir of all -- Seattle's Space Needle. These are treasured and maintained relics of World's Fairs of yore.

So what's going on with the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park?

Like a few other extant relics, this holdover from the New York's World's Fair 1964-65 (designed by Philip Johnson and Lev Zetlin) was built to embody the future -- two towers straight from the Jetsons and a once-festive coliseum perfect for robot gladiator games.  The fair is long gone, but these structures remain, rusting and completely unused.

What to do with these remarkably weird remnants is the subject of Matthew Silva's new documentary Modern Ruin: A World's Fair Pavilion:

Modern Ruin from Matthew Silva on Vimeo.

You'll have an opportunity to catch the film later this year.  But for an exclusive peek and more information on the efforts to save and transform the New York State Pavilion, the film's director Matthew Silva will be in conversation at an event tomorrow night (Wednesday, Sept. 17) with DOCOMOMO (Documentation and Conservations of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement)

Wednesday September 17, 6:30pm
Knoll Showroom
1330 Sixth Ave at 53rd St, 2nd floor
$10 DOCOMOMO members/$20 non-members
Capacity is limited, register here

More information at Silva's production site, Aquarela Pictures

Top photo courtesy New York Public Library

Monday, September 15, 2014

The story of 'Klein Klassje', the New World's first Roosevelt and the surprising origin of Roosevelt Street

New Amsterdam, the home of Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt (by Thomas Addis Emmet, courtesy NYPL)

The new Ken Burns seven-part documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is underway on PBS, a sprawling look at one of New York's most prominent families.  It began last night with the introduction of young Theodore Roosevelt, the sickly boy turned New York police commissioner. Tonight, in part two, he becomes the President of the United States.

With so many Roosevelts to speak about -- and two clans of Roosevelts, named for their summer haunts Hyde Park and Oyster Bay -- there wasn't much time to mention the very first Roosevelt.  That is, the first ancestor to arrive in future North America -- Claes Maartenszen van Rosenvelt.

Claes arrived to New Amsterdam sometime around 1649 or 1650, although possibly much earlier (some records say 1638), one of a number of Dutch settlers arriving at this outpost of the Dutch West India Company.  If the earlier dates are true, this puts Rosenvelt in the outpost during the years of William Keift, when New Amsterdam was a ragged company town, with a rudimentary civic structure and in constant fear of attack by the Lenape.

His wife is referred to in records as both Jannetje Samuels and Jannetie Thomas.  Keep in mind that with the paucity of extant records, a company-town's inefficiencies, basic human error and the "peculiar method of naming people during Dutch times," it's incredible that we even have these names at all!

Many histories make note of Claes unusual nickname -- Klein Klassje or Cleyn Claesjen ("Little Claes") -- perhaps meaning he was a short man or that there was a much larger Claes in town. It's not inconceivable to think he was also "short" in social stature, not physical.

Brooklyn Bridge PierThe colony was whipped into a relatively more livable condition with the arrival of Peter Stuyvesant in 1647, and records list Claes as having a farm "situated back of Stuyvesant's Bouwery, at present somewhere between Broadway and the East River, in the neighborhood of Tenth Street." [source]

The couple had four children of which only one (Nicolas) took and kept the name Rosenvelt, which of course was modified over time into Roosevelt.

For decades, Manhattan once had a Roosevelt Street, named not for any of the later great leaders who would make the family famous, but (it's believed) for either Nicolas or his son Jacobus. The family owned a profitable mill on a small stream which ran between the East River and the banks of Collect Pond. [source]

At right: the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge as seen from Roosevelt Street, 1876 (courtesy MCNY)

In the 19th century, Roosevelt Street was a dour place, rife with poverty and the downtrodden culture of South Street piers.  It was entirely erased in the 1950s with the creation of the Alfred E. Smith Houses.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Spectropia, or How to Make Ghosts in Your Home

Above: The cover of the New York edition of Brown's optical illusion book

One of the hottest books in New York City in the fall of 1864 was an optical illusion collection that conjured ghosts through a simple trick of the eye.

Spectropia, or surprising spectral illusions showing ghosts everywhere and of any colour was both a parlor amusement and picture-filled chapbook written and illustrated by J. H. Brown, an early skeptic of the spiritualism movement.

From the books introduction: "It is a curious fact that, in this age of scientific research, the absurd follies of spiritualism should find an increase in supporters; but mental epidemics seem at certain seasons to affect our minds, and one of the oldest of these mental afflictions -- witchcraft -- is once more prevalent in this nineteenth century, under the contemptible forms of spirit-rapping and table-turning."

To counter the phonies, Brown presents readers with a nifty optical illusion that will allow its readers to create their own ghosts at home.

According to advertisements for the book:

"The directions are very simple.  You have merely to hold the volume so that the strongest possible light will fall upon the engraved plate; look at it steadily without blinking for nearly a minute; then turn and look steadily for the same length of time at any white surface which is in part shadow, and the object or specter will presently appear."

"The effect is best by gaslight." My goodness, what isn't?

Here's a sampling of the illustrations.  See if they work for you! And yes, definitely try these out if your home is equipped with gaslight....

The book was produced in New York by publisher James Gregory at 540 Broadway in today's SoHo area. (It's the building where the Steve Madden shoe store is today.).

Believe it or not, Spectropia was a hot gift under the tree that Christmas. The New York Times lists it that year in their recommended holiday gift list. "The publications of Mr. JAS. G. GREGORY, of No. 540 Broadway, are characterized by good taste and fine execution."  Mr. Gregory kept the book in publication for several years afterwards or at least until the novelty wore off.

You can read the book here.  And here's a PDF.

Below from the New York Daily Tribune, September 13, 1864

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The grand opening of the World Trade Center on April 4, 1973; Richard Nixon, labor strikes and "General Motors Gothic"

[Looking north from Battery Park to Lower Manhattan.]

Photography on this page, from various periods, by Edmund V. Gillon, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.  Check out their online gallery for some more beautiful black-and-white shots. 

Let me take you back to a simpler time, back to a time where it might have been okay to hate the actual World Trade Center.

The World Trade Center was originally seen as a representation of New York's own dreams and failures.  The buildings represented progress to some, disruption to others.

An entire business district -- Radio Row -- was eliminated in its construction.  Another neighborhood -- Battery Park City -- sprang up in its shadow.  The monumental design by Minoru Yamasaki radically altered (distorted?) the skyline. Some of New York's oldest streets were now blocked from sunlight. On the other hand, an area of Manhattan that would have been susceptible to rising blight was now renewed.  It was the apotheosis of post-modern design, the apex of New York City construction.

Everything grand and intolerable about New York City in the late 1960s/early 1970s was embodied here in these two impossibly tall shafts of metal.

Many saw a waste of resources and state governments with skewered priorities.  Business interests were hopeful the buildings would reinvigorate the Financial District.  They would, eventually.  But back in 1973 many openly wondered how its owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were even going to attract tenants.

Below: The view of downtown Manhattan from a New Jersey marina

[Looking east from a marina in New Jersey toward the Lower Manhattan skyline.]

After years of construction that transformed lower Manhattan, the buildings were officially opened in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 4, 1973.  Far from a rapturous embrace, the opening of the world's tallest buildings was met with relief, resignation and turmoil.  Few were in a mood to celebrate two shiny new symbols of wealth in a city slowly nearing bankruptcy.

Here are a few more details from its opening day and its aftermath:

People were already over it:  The opening was occasioned by severe rain. (It's in good company; the opening of the Statue of Liberty was also met with a downpour.)  Even without it, however, the celebration would have been heavily muted.  The ground was broken on the World Trade Center site almost seven years before, and New Yorkers had plenty of time to get used to the rising towers. The first tower had been completed by 1970, but by then, the city had become rather jaded to the expensive buildings.  As it was, lower levels of the second building were still not even completed.

Disagreements: The top luminaries at the opening were New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and New Jersey governor William T. Cahill.  The World Trade Center was a Port Authority project;  PATH trains to New Jersey were rumbling underneath (or were supposed to be, see below).

While the two governors seemed in playful spirits, Cahill openly resented the backseat his state took in the finished product.  According to author Eric Darton:  "Cahill implies that New Jersey's commuter rail needs have taken second place to the trade center, and Rockefeller, still grinning, points towards the Jersey shore. 'You see all those magnificent container ports,' he says, 'that took all those jobs away from New York.' "

[Manhattan Savings Bank.]

In Absentia: Gone were the days when U.S. presidents showed up at the opening of New York landmarks, but President Richard Nixon did send a statement, hailing WTC as "a major factor for the expansion of the nation's international trade."  That very same month, the Watergate cover-up erupted into the scandal that would eventually lead to his resignation the following year.

STRIKE! Not only was Nixon not there, but the man he designated to read the speech -- Peter J. Brennan -- was not even there.  Three days earlier, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen union began a strike against Port Authority.  Because of the strike, the PATH train -- that glorious feature of the new World Trade Center -- was closed for a total of 63 days.  Brennan was Nixon's new Secretary of Labor, so it would hardly seem proper to break the picket line.  Nixon's speech was delivered instead by a Port Authority chairman.

[Looking northeast from the base of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.]

Critics, Part One:  Noted labor leader and powerful mediator Theodore W. Kheel was violently against the states' interest in the World Trade Center.  Calling it "socialism at its worst," he demanded the governors take the podium on ribbon-cutting day and sell the building to private investors "at the earliest possible date."

Others were perhaps understandably concerned that the buildings, given special tax status, were now a quarter-filled with state offices and certainly destined to empty and bankrupt office buildings with no such tax breaks in the surrounding area.  Luckily, Kheel did live to see the building sold to private concerns in 1998.

Critics, Part Two: Somebody else was saving up some vitriol for opening day -- noted architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable.  Having years to craft some well-worded jabs, she did so in a column in the New York Times the following day. "These are big buildings, but they are not great architecture.....The Port Authority has built the ultimate Disneyland fairytale blockbuster.  It is General Motors Gothic."

Critics, Part Three:  Labor leaders were disgruntled. Critics dismissed it.  But many New Yorkers outright loathed it. It's a bit disturbing to read such outright disgust over structures that we have very different feelings about today.  From the Village Voice a week after the opening:  "The ecology-minded and those who are concerned with the energy crisis are fond of predicting that the building will have to be torn down -- or at the very least abandoned -- on that not-to-distant day when the power it consumes puts an intolerable strain on our already-diminishing power reserves."

[View looking southwest along Park Row toward St. Paul's Chapel.]

Nowhere to Eat:  The World Trade Center could facilitate thousands of employees, but, on opening day, it had one restaurant, called "Eat and Drink," where "the waitresses wear hard hats and its busboys wear vests inscribed "Ecologist" on the back." [source]  In the second building, a makeshift sandwich shop opened on the unfinished 44th floor.  Needless to say, outside food vendors in the area were not displeased.

Subversion The ribbon-cutting ceremony also marked the end of One World Trade Center's dominance as the world's tallest building.  Chicago trumped it when Sears Tower topped out at 1,454-feet less than one month later.

In New York, the buildings quickly became a totem of excess, of something that could be symbolically overcome.  You may be familiar with the daredevil Philippe Petit and his insane and unbelievably majestic (and illegal) tightrope walk between the towers.  But you may not remember that it took place just sixteen months after the opening, on August 6, 1974.  Two years later, King Kong performed a similar sort of feat in the 1976 remake starring Jessica Lange.

But there was magic in the air.  On the very same day as the ribbon-cutting, in a hospital across the water in Brooklyn, a woman went into labor and gave birth to a child who would later become the nightclub-loving illusionist David Blaine.  The World Trade Center and David Blaine -- born on the same day!

[Looking southwest across the East River to the Brooklyn Bridge and the twin towers of the World Trade Center.]

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

History in the Making 9/9: The Former Avenue A Edition

[Junior Sea Breeze for sick babies.]

A particularly haunting image -- the caption "Junior sea breeze for sick babies -- 64th Street and Avenue A." Circa 1895, this was taken in a park at 64th and today's York Avenue, the area of Rockefeller University.  On this 1899 map, you can see that the future Sutton Place and York Avenue were still referred to as Avenue A then.  By the 20th century, the lettered avenues were so synonymous with poorer immigrants that the upper portions were renamed to appeal to wealthier residents.   (Picture courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

Food Fight:  Junior's Restaurant, the legendary Brooklyn restaurant on Flatbush Avenue, rejects lavish cash offers to remain in the same spot. "This is Junior's identity, is this building. This is the one where I came on my first dates. It's where my family spent most of their waking hours ... Not the one down the street, not the one below 20 stories of condos. This one." [Curbed]

Re-booked: Rizzoli's Bookstore, forcibly vacated from its 57th Street location, finds a new home downtown. [Wall Street Journal]

Reinventing the Sandwich:  The rise and fall of the panini in New York City [Gothamist]

Sky High:  The staggering development of Manhattan over 350 years, courtesy an extraordinary cross-section of bird's eye illustrations. [Gizmodo]

The Glow of the City:  A look at the dreamlike photography of pictoralist Alvin Langdon Coburn. [Ephemeral New York]

Beautiful Trash:  And another photographer from a different era -- Mike Frey and his black-and-white take of New York in the 1970s. [Jeremiah's Vanishing New York]

I Want To Go To There: And speaking of great photographs, my favorite Instagram account of the moment is by Rolando Pujol who finds the most remarkable examples of Americana restaurant signage in New York.  I want to eat ice cream at all of these places.  Follow him there or check out his blog. [The Retrologist]

Meanwhile, if you're watching The Knick or Boardwalk Empire, follow along with me on Twitter (@boweryboys) for some extra trivia about the historical eras being depicted.  I'm trying to avoid actual spoilers at all possible, although sometimes history itself provides the spoiler as with the murder of this prominent mob boss.  Here's a few example of Tweets for this weekend's episodes:

Friday, September 5, 2014

The tale of two hospitals: Enjoy the "inexpressibly nauseating" aromas of Brooklyn's oldest operating theater

Hospitals, Roosevelt Hospital, Operating Theatre.

Syms operating theater at Roosevelt Hospital in 1900, perhaps one of the cleanest places in Manhattan! (Picture courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

It was not a fair fight.

In 1895, in celebrating the innovative new surgery building at Roosevelt Hospital, the New York Times decided to compare its revolutionary new features to an antiquated hospital, one that had been serving patients for decades in that metropolis right across the water -- Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn.

Upon its opening in 1892, William J. Syms Operating Theater, west of Columbus Circle, was a jewel in the crown of the Roosevelt Hospital complex, employing the latest antiseptic techniques, even using materials in its construction that were believed to be less germ prone -- glass operating tables, a mosaic floor, iron chairs.

New rules of cleanliness were employed within its surgical theater.  "[The visitor] will see everywhere signs of the most exquisite cleanliness.  [He] will see no sign of haste or confusion, of dirt or litter, of human pain or suffering."

 Its appearance may be familiar to you if you're watching the medical drama The Knick on Cinemax which depicts a medical theater of similar design.

Below: The inside of the Syms operating room from 1893: (Scouting NY)

In heralding this sparkly new institution, the newspaper decided to throw a vaunted, albeit older, one under the bus.

"In the operating theater of the Long Island College Hospital the conditions obtain [sic] today are more in keeping with the practices of half a century ago.  The large and ugly theatre is fitted with wooden benches, upon which generations of students have done their whittling. The floor beneath the benches acts as a convenient and frequent receptacle for tobacco juice.  The walls are tinted with a dirty, bluish color, and on the side nearest the operating table there is an ominous stain of seepage from the floor above."

The description continues rather grotesquely -- I'll get to more of it in a second -- but is it a fair characterization?  While disquieting to our modern understanding of cleanliness, in fact, the Brooklyn institution was certainly deteriorating, but probably in better shape than most places of this type in America in the 1890s.

The Tale of Long Island College Hospital
The story of Long Island College Hospital is the tale of the neighborhood of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

Well before south Brooklyn was urban-planned into a grid of respectable blocks, the area that is today's Cobble Hill was called Ponkiesberg, much of it the farmland of a man named Ralph Patchen.  Near the eastern edge of his property sat the ruins of the old Revolutionary War fort .  [You may remember this fort from our ghost stories podcast from last year.]

Patchen's farm was purchased by Joseph A. Perry, later known for his contributions for planning Green-Wood Cemetery.  On this former lot he built a sumptuous mansion which stood at Henry Street, between Amity and Pacific (pictured below).

Meanwhile, on the edge of his property, two doctors recently arrived from Germany opened a clinic exclusively for Brooklyn's small, but emerging German population. In the late 1850s, they and other prominent doctors sought to found a college hospital and purchased the Perry mansion in 1858.

From this old house sprang the roots of Long Island College Hospital.  While the United States already had a few medical schools, this was America's first college hospital -- on-the-job training as it were, with students interacting directly with patients.

Below: Faculty and students of the medical school pose on the steps of the Perry Mansion, LICH's principal structure in the mid-19th century

It was an institution quite well known for innovations in the late 19th century.  Many of America's finest physicians passed through here at some point in their storied careers.  The clinician Austin Flint brought many European techniques to the school, including the stethoscope, a variant of which making its debut here. (Flint actually has a heart murmur named after him, too.)  In 1888 the Hoagland Laboratory opened on campus, providing facilities for both research and education that kept Long Island College Hospital at the forefront of medicine.

In many ways, it was still a respected institution in 1895, but they were often in debt and in desperate need of an upgrade.  Its conditions were probably not unlike most medical institutions of the day, but it paled in comparison to the spectacular new operating theater built for Roosevelt Hospital as a gift.

The Tale of Syms Operating Theater
Roosevelt Hospital (pictured above) was born out of the generosity of James H. Roosevelt, a wealthy philanthropist confined to his manor for most of his life by illness. When he died, he bequeathed his entire fortune to the creation of a new hospital in his name.  Roosevelt Hospital's first building opened in 1871, over ten years after the opening of Long Island College Hospital.

Many years later, another wealthy benefactor -- gun merchant William Syms -- benefited from a successful operation at Roosevelt Hospital and donated most of his fortune to the hospital, with the specific intent of building a new operating center.  When Syms Operating Theater opened in 1892, the press trumpeted its sleek innovations in sanitation, creating a brightly lit, aseptic environment previously unseen except in a few places in New York.

It was perhaps the cleanest place in Manhattan or, at least, it was touted as such.  From a citation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission:  "Aseptic operating rooms were bright, clean, hard, undecorated spaces; they were the 'high tech' spaces of their day."

Below: The sleek interior of the Syms Operating Theater, 1925. (Picture courtesy Museum of City of New York) 

[Roosevelt Hospital, Sym's Operating Room.]

This was not simply for the health of patients and staff.  A building of such profound innovations -- such as a moat around the basement for thorough drainage -- was meant to ease the tensions of New Yorkers who considered operating rooms barbaric and even obscene.

Disturbing descriptions
The administrators at Long Island College Hospital could not have been thrilled when they picked up the New York Times on April 27, 1895.  Right there on the front page was a horror story with their historic institution as a backdrop.

"It is from this upper floor that foul and inexpressibly nauseating odors are wafted through the operating theater at all times, because it is there that the students of the college and hospital practice anatomy on eighteen or twenty decomposing cadavers."

The reporter noted the routine delivery of dead bodies from room to room and the grim procedures of dissection witnessed by dozens of disinterested students.

"In spite of the rising temperature, which should render dissection almost impossible in a building exclusively devoted to the purpose, it is plain from the stench that the hot weather had not stopped the students of Long Island College Hospital."

Due to the proximity of the autopsy theater to regular patients, "whatever ills result from breathing such a tainted atmosphere must be shared to a lesser extent by the surgical patients of the hospital."  Sepsis was an omnipresent and growing.danger. As if to confirm this, the hospital refused to provide its mortality records.

The renown doctor Alexander Skene, perhaps the best known physician at the hospital, blamed a lack of funding for the institution's woes.  "The people of Brooklyn are to blame in some measure because they do not give the hospital the financial support it needs and merits," said Skene. "The school is very prosperous, while the hospital is very much the reverse."

(Skene, a leader in the field of gynecology, died just a few years later.  Today you can find him in bust form in Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza.)

The regents of Long Island College Hospital responded with disbelief, even outrage.  "I am there everyday, and I never feel any smell," said a chairman. "We have the plans all ready for a new operating room ... but we have no money."

Fortunately, the hospital and its patients were rescued from further embarrassment by Caroline Polhemus, the wife of one of the hospital's regents Henry Ditmas Polhemus.  When her husband died that  year in 1895, a society matron donated a sizable chunk of her fortune to create the Polhemus Memorial Clinic (pictured at right) in her husband's honor.

All autopsies for educational purposes were moved to the top floor of the clinic, across the street and far away from the hallways regular hospital.  The building is still around -- you can see it here -- although it is no longer associated with the hospital.

The Syms Operating Theater served Roosevelt Hospital for several decades before it, too, was declared inadequate.  That building is also still around however;  Scouting New York has a nice feature on its current whereabouts, a must-see stop on any New York medical-inspired walking tour.

It's safe to say that both hospitals are held in high regard in the annals of medical history.

But while Roosevelt Hospital is still going strong.-- it's now an affiliate of Mount Sinai -- the end is near for Long Island College Hospital, as the community and staff fight to keep it open after years of battles with its owner the State University of New York.

Follow along at Curbed for the latest developments on the LICH front.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

New York City's "stripped and abandoned" car crisis

The fate of an automobile at Breezy Point, 1973 (Courtesy US National Archives)

The abandoned car, that most dramatic symbol of urban blight, is a sight that has pretty much vanished from most New York City streets. (Most, not all.)  In a city refitted for the automobile by the mid 20th century, people just began leaving their cars everywhere, either vandalized beyond repair or too expensive to tow when their vehicles became unusable. These husks of metal were scavenged for parts, then left to rust, the city's sanitation crews unable to keep pace of the growing problem.

I recently found an intriguing article in New York Magazine from 45 years ago, titled "Stripped and Abandoned," outlining the causes of the city's sudden population of vehicular remains:

"Last year, by Department of Sanitation records, 31,578 cars were abandoned in New York City.  Some were wrecks; some were stolen, then stripped; some were involved ... in minor highway mishaps which caused their owners to leave them -- to expert instant strippers, who evidently abound."

By 1969, the problem had grown so unwieldy that the city hired third-party contractors to take care of most of it, but its budget for such removal would only shrink as the city entered the hard-knock 1970s.  Within a few years, the city would not even bother to remove such blight from certain neighborhoods.

"At any one time," wrote author Fred Ferretti in 1969, "there are about 2,000 cars strewn about the highways and local streets."

Below: From the New York Magazine article, the fate of a vehicle in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and on Delancey Street in the Lower East Side (photos by Robert D'Alessandro):

In 1970, standing in stark contrast to a city of polluted, automotive remains, one artist at the very first Earth Day celebration in Union Square attempted to address the problem.  A crushed sedan sat alongside the environmental merriment with a sign: "57,742 Cars Removed in 1969; 21,635 Removed in 1970, as of April 21."  The New York Times would later note a total of 72,961 abandoned cars in 1970. [source] [source]

Below: A lot of various skeletal remains in the Bronx, 1970s. (Camilo Jose Vergara, photographer)

They weren't just eye sores.  What wasn't pilfered or siphoned out was left to rot in the elements, leaking oil, attracting vermin.

New York City was only one problem spot within a new American crisis, with millions and millions of cars across the country already overfilling scrap yards.  Here, however, it was a harbinger of hard times on the way.

"Everywhere you look, there are abandoned cars, stripped and junked," said one resident of Brownsville, Brooklyn, returning to his deteriorating neighborhood in 1970.

A car almost completed ingested by Jamaica Bay, 1973  (Courtesy US National Archives)

Abandoned vehicles became the New York Sanitation Department's biggest issue in the 1970s, although by the new decade, there was some improvement.  According to a New York Times article from 1981:

"Total abandoned-car collections declined from more than 79,000 in 1978 to 33,112 last year and to 14,900 in the first half of this year, officials said. Robert Hennelly, chief of cleaning operations, said he thought the drop was ''perhaps because the cost of cars has gotten so high that people are holding on to them longer."

Some cynically still considered the abandoned vehicle to be a recognizable mark of New York City, even in the 1980s, a sort of native animal.

Not that an abandoned car couldn't have some useful purpose, as this picture by Camily Jose Vergara illustrates. (Click here for more of his terrific photography)

With the general infrastructural improvement of the city during the 1990s, the beast had receded somewhat from view in most neighborhoods.  There are still abandoned cars galore -- here's the city's current policy for reporting derelict vehicles -- but few are so unscrupulously picked clean or left to decay into a rusty shell.

Below: As with the others above, Jamaica Bay 1973, near JFK Airport (US National Archives)