Books and the City

New Yorkers love to read. Whether it’s just for a stolen moment at work…

James Godbold for LOOK Magazine. Night Clubs- Copa Showgirls [Showgirl reading backstage.] 1950. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.12052.14.

James Godbold for LOOK Magazine. Night Clubs- Copa Showgirls [Showgirl reading backstage.] 1950. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.12052.14.

or enjoying (or hoping that whatever we’re reading will distract us from) our subway commute…

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11107.53B.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11107.53B.

or as a handy prop when eating at a restaurant alone (as prizefighter Walter Cartier does)…

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. Walter Cartier, Prizefighter of Greenwich Village [Walter Cartier eating in a restaurant.]. 1948. X2011.4.11122.88D.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. Walter Cartier, Prizefighter of Greenwich Village [Walter Cartier eating in a restaurant.]. 1948. X2011.4.11122.88D.

and, of course, in true New Yorker fashion, wherever we feel like it…

John Albok (1894-1982). Boy reading comics in front of newspaper store, west side of Madison Avenue between 96th and 97th Streets. 1933-1934. Museum of the City of New York. 82.68.11.

John Albok (1894-1982). Boy reading comics in front of newspaper store, west side of Madison Avenue between 96th and 97th Streets. 1933-1934. Museum of the City of New York. 82.68.11.

or, much more comfortably, lying in bed (furry friends optional).

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. A Dog's Life in the Big City [Women reading in bed with dogs.] 1949. X2011.4.12306.245

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. A Dog’s Life in the Big City [Women reading in bed with dogs.] 1949.Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.12306.245.

However, in the decades since these pictures were taken, the nature of reading has changed. Kindles, iPads, and even games featuring annoyed fowl compete for our attention, and the commercial landscape of New York City is shifting because of this.

As of last Friday, Rizzoli’s Bookstore has been pushed out of its beautiful 57th Street location. Shakespeare & Company lost their lease on their Broadway storefront last week. St. Mark’s Bookshop is looking for another East Village location due to a massive rent increase. And it’s not just independent bookstores that are feeling the pressure: the Barnes and Noble on 18th Street and 5th Avenue closed quietly last year along with five Borders locations in the city when the parent company went bankrupt.  It seems like a good time to look back at some of the bookstores that have made the city uniquely literary.

At the turn of the last century, Greenwich Village was a bohemian’s paradise. Artists, writers, and hangers-on flocked to the area around Washington Square. The Washington Square Bookshop, run by Egmont Arens (pictured below), was the place for all the original downtown literati’s needs. Arens also established a small publishing company within the store where he published plays  like Two Blind Beggars and One Less Blind; A Tragic Comedy by Philip Moeller and other fare for the Washington Square Players.

Jessie Tarbox Beals. Washington Square Bookshop, 17 West 8th Street. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. 91.53.19.

Jessie Tarbox Beals. Washington Square Bookshop, 17 West 8th Street. ca. 1918. Museum of the City of New York. 91.53.19.

In the 1920′s, 4th Avenue between Astor Place and 14th Street was the mecca for secondhand books. More than 30 stores specializing in rare, out-of-print, or merely used books lined the streets, earning the area the moniker “Bookseller’s Row”  or sometimes simply “Book Row”.

Andreas Feininger (1906-1999). Secondhand bookstores on Lower Fourth Avenue. ca. 1941-1953. Museum of the City of New York. 55.31.70.

What makes Weiser’s Bookstore (pictured above) unique, however, besides the fact that it was a mainstay of Bookseller’s Row (until it had to move to Broadway in the 1950′s due to increased rent), is that it was known as the best occult bookstore in the city.  But what’s even better is that it still exists…granted, only for established customers with prior appointments, but for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be on that list, they do have an online store.

Another mainstay of Bookseller’s Row was Biblo-Tannen book store where  owners Jack Tannen and Jack Biblo would legendarily sleep at the store to make sure they were the first ones to go the Salvation Army’s warehouse to find the latest overlooked treasures. That kind of dedication made people like Carl Sandburg loyal customers. The store closed in 1979.

Roy Perry. Browsing at Second Hand Bookstalls, Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue. ca. 1940. Museum of the City of New York. 80.102.136.

Roy Perry. Browsing at Second Hand Bookstalls, Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue. ca. 1940. Museum of the City of New York. 80.102.136.

The decline of Bookseller’s Row started in the 1960′s due to constant rent increases and since the secondhand (or even firsthand) book industry has never been lucrative, the end was fairly quick.  Now only two vestiges of Bookseller’s  Row remain: The Strand and Alabaster Bookshop.

While Bookseller’s Row was browsing heaven for bibliophiles, there were, of course, other options. Brentano’s,  Gotham Book Mart, Books and Company and the Oscar Wilde Bookshop were just some of mainstays that provided for every literary need of New Yorkers.

New York was (and still is) a publishing city where the biggest publishing companies have their corporate offices. For many years Doubleday, Scribner’s, and Barnes and Noble had brick and mortar stores lining Fifth Avenue, offering “a cerebral antidote to Tiffany’s glitter and Bergdorf’s finery,” as the Times put it. These stores were architecturally unique, airy, and had a sense of grandeur that some may have found the secondhand bookstores downtown lacking.

The elegant Scribner’s Building on Fifth Avenue was the pinnacle of bookstore architecture. Ernest Flagg designed the 1913 building to highlight its function as a bookstore. In 1974 art critic Henry Russell Hitchcock, comparing the bookstore’s interiors to Grand Central Terminal, called them “the grandest interior space that had been created in New York.” Earning it extra literary cred is the story that Hemingway and his editor were having a discussion there when his editor unwisely questioned Hemingway’s manhood. Words were exchanged, chest hair was exposed, and because it was Hemingway, fisticuffs ensued. (For a delightful account, click here.) Decades later, a young Patti Smith pored over art books during her lunch break during the five years she was a book clerk there. Scribner’s sold the building in 1988; the store is now a Sephora.

Edmund V. Gillon. [Charles Scribner's Sons Building, 597 Fifth Avenue.] ca. 1977. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.2.2001

Edmund V. Gillon. [Charles Scribner's Sons Building, 597 Fifth Avenue.] ca. 1977. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.2.2001

So next time you need a book to make your commute tolerable, go to your local neighborhood bookstore. You’ll be helping to save the literary history of New York City.

For more images of bookstores and New Yorkers reading, click here.

Under the Vault: Behind the scenes at the City Museum

Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile opened to the public at the Museum of the City of New York on March 26 and runs through September 7, 2014.

Monday February 24, 2014, however, marked the start of the installation of a three to four ton object in our third floor gallery. The object is not a ship model, an airplane, a marble sculpture, or an elephant. Hardly. The heavy object is none other than an architectural marvel – one that dates back to antiquity.

We built a vault.

We were able to accomplish this with the assistance of masons from the International Masonry Institute, Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers of the Local Union 1  in New York City, and students from the University of Notre Dame and MIT.

You may already be familiar with this particular type of structural vault in New York City, especially if you have dined at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, spent time at the Municipal Building downtown, lifted your eyes to the heavens at St. John the Divine, engaged in a conversation with the rhinos at the Bronx Zoo, or even managed to catch a ride to the elusive City Hall Subway Station on the downtown 6 train. We built a tile vault, a half-scale replica of an actual vault built in the 1880s by the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company, an architectural firm that was responsible for no fewer than 250 vaults and domes at the turn of the 20th Century in New York City alone. The Guastavino Company kept their methods a secret in order to lessen the competition; yet clues to the construction of their vaults have been uncovered by our colleagues at MIT as part of research towards a definitive survey of Guastavino Projects in the United States and abroad.

What follows is a selection of images taken during the construction of the vault in our third floor gallery. Each image is accompanied by a small description, and at the close you will find links and resources for more information.

Another view of the same  - the steel frame is visible in the foreground, and a third layer of terracotta tile has been installed.

A temporary wooden frame provided support as the tiles were applied. The wooden frame was built around a simple steel structure that sits directly on a platform on the floor, not visible during the construction process. The tiles rested on the frame while the cement between them hardened.

The final layer of tile has been installed on this arch, a total of 5 layers.

The masons began with the outer edges of the vault and moved inward and up the dome, utilizing the temporary wooden frame throughout.The final layer of tile has been installed on this arch in the photo above.

Close up of the five layers of tile. Two are ceramic, three are terracotta.

Above is a close up of the five layers of tile that make up the arch edge. The bottom two layers are ceramic, the top three are terracotta, with cement sandwiched in-between.

An image of the first layer of the dome near completion. The dome of this model is open, to demonstrate not only the strength of the structure, but also to allow a viewer to see its layers.

The first layer of the dome is depicted in the photo above. Unlike the edges of the replica, which consist of five layers of tile, a typical vaulted ceiling consists of only three. The center of this replica has been left incomplete  to demonstrate not only the strength of the structure, but also to allow a viewer to see its construction.

The temporary wooden frame is removed once the cement is dry and the tiles are in place. The come of the vault can support itself, therefore rendering the frame superfluous. The vault can support even more weight as evidenced by photographs in the exhibition of Guastavino Sr. and his staff standing upon the structures as they are constructed. We did not attempt similar feats of prowess.

Once the cement is dry and the tiles are in place the temporary wooden structure is removed. The vault is stable due to its construction, rendering the wooden frame superfluous. The remarkably thin vault can support an astonishing amount of weight, as evidenced by photographs in the exhibition of Guastavino Sr. and his staff standing upon the structures as they are constructed. We did not attempt similar feats of bravado.

The construction of the visible interior ceiling of the vault commenced once the outer layer of the vault was complete. These light turquoise ceramic tiles were applied in a herringbone pattern, for structural and aesthetic reasons. It is worth mentioning that the tiles are of the same shape and material that Guastavino would have fabricated and used, some examples of which are included in the exhibition.

The construction of the visible interior ceiling of the vault commenced once the outer layer of the vault was complete. These light turquoise ceramic tiles were applied in a herringbone pattern, one that Guastavino utilized often for structural and aesthetic reasons. It is worth mentioning that the tiles are of the same shape and material that Guastavino would have fabricated and used, some examples of which are included in the exhibition.

The completed ceiling. Unlike the edges of this model, which consist of five layers of tile, the vaulted ceiling consists of only three, allowing the viewer to comprehend the structure.

Above is a view of the completed ceiling, the culmination of a week’s worth of labor. Large mirrors underneath the vault reflect the ceiling and allow visitors to have visual access to the ceiling.

The half-scale model tile vault is one of many pieces in the exhibition that demonstrate the structural integrity and the architectural beauty of Guastavino’s vaults and domes. The exhibition boasts a selection of ornamental and structural tiles, contemporary photographs, architectural drawings, video, and ephemera that illustrate the influence the Guastavino Company had on New York City and the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

Truly beautiful in design and ambitious in scope, the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company’s vaults are an integral part of New York City’s landscape and cultural history, providing icons for years to come.

Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile, is on view at the Museum until September 7, 2014.

The Guastavino Replica Vault at the Museum was built by the following:

Masons:
International Masonry Institute: Bob Arnold, Bob Mion, Dennis Holloway, Rolfy Espinal, Robert Schwarz
Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (Local Union 1, New York): Henry Louie, Don Grande, Thomas Zmich, William J. Higgins, Jerry Sullivan, Tomasz Kowalewski, John Casanova
Students:
Sara Bega, University of Notre Dame, Bachelor of Architecture; Nicolo Guida, MIT, Master of Architecture; Jonathan Ellowitz, MIT, Master of Engineering; William Plunkett, MIT, Master of Science in Building Technology

MIT Guastavino Project:

John Ochsendorf
Maggie Redfern

 

Alexander Jackson Davis Gothic Revival Chair

An iconic example of Gothic Revival furniture, a chair (MCNY 35.257.67) designed by Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892), is one of the highlights of the Museum’s furniture collection. It was designed in the early 1850s and its manufacture is attributed to William and Thomas Burns, known as Burns and Brother, in New York City between 1857 and 1859.  An elegant expression of the Gothic Revival style, this chair derives from designs made as part of an architectural commission Davis undertook in the 1850s.  Nineteenth-century architects were known to design landscapes, furniture, and other parts of a building’s interior and exterior.  But why this chair was made in both oak and walnut, and the ownership histories, or provenance, of both versions of these chairs have yet to be determined.

Chair

Chair, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, 1857, manufacture attributed to Burns and Brother, 1857-1859, New York City, black walnut, MCNY 35.257.67, gift of Joseph B. Davis

Davis was among the leading architects in the United States in the 1840s and 1850s and is closely associated with American Gothic Revival style.[1] The Gothic Revival style was popular in the United States from around 1830 to the beginning of the Civil War.[2] It emerged in England at the turn of the nineteenth century as the country’s designers sought to move beyond the ornate styles of the eighteenth century, particularly the exuberant Rococo, and employ ornamental motifs in a more sober and restrained manner. In the context of a rapidly-industrializing English society, the medieval period was idealized and romanticized by writers, artists, and designers. These designers, the most well-known of whom is A.W.N. Pugin (1812-1852), began to adapt forms and ornament of existing medieval churches, universities, and castles for new buildings, objects, and interior design.  In the United States, Gothic Revival style is characterized by the use of medieval architectural forms, such as pointed arches, the shape of stained glass windows—known as tracery, and spires, in an ordered, restrained manner. For the better part of the 40 years between 1830 and 1870 it was at the height of taste. It was seen as dignified, intellectual, and grand and wealthy New Yorkers commissioned estates in this style.

Design for Gothic Villa, Murray Hill residence of W.C.H. Waddell, 5th Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets, designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, 1844, lithograph, MCNY 29.100.1523, gift of J. Clarence Davies

Davis was born, went to school, and worked in New York City. He studied at the American Academy of Fine Arts, the New-York Drawing Association, and the National Academy of Design. He worked as a printer and illustrator before being hired by the architectural firm of Ithiel Town in 1826, where he was made a partner in 1829. The collaboration lasted until 1835, but in nine years Davis, who started his career designing Neoclassical buildings, developed the skills, professional contacts, and reputation that allowed him to create over 100 grand country homes, many near the Hudson River, for New York City’s elite in his mature Gothic Revival style.  Davis’s best-known work in the Neoclassical style in New York City is  Federal Hall, which was constructed between 1833 and 1842.  A prolific architect, his extant work can be seen in numerous sites in the Midwest and on the East Coast.  His work at Lyndhurst, an estate in Tarrytown along the Hudson River, today owned by the National Trust, exemplifies his later style and its atmospheric, landscape-driven sensitivity.

35.257.46

Lyndhurst, Alexander Jackson Davis, watercolor, ca. 1840, MCNY 35.257.46, gift of Joesph B. Davis

 

35.257.67 detail

 

 

 

 

 

 

Made of black walnut, the Davis chair’s splat, or back, evokes the tracery of medieval stained glass windows. Its gently curving rear legs and splat, beautifully carved ears (the features on the far top ends of the splat), and cloven deer hoof feet are indicative of the restrained but complex ornamental features of the early Gothic Revival style, as expressed by Davis. This temperament is found in other examples of his work in the Museum’s collection, such as two watercolors by Davis of designs for chairs, seen below.

Design for chair and firescreen, Alexander Jackson Davis, watercolor, ca. 1855, MCNY 35.257.40, gift of Joseph B. Davis

Design for wheel-back chair, Alexander Jackson Davis, watercolor, ca. 1845, MCNY 35.257.41, gift of Joseph B. Davis

Design for wheel-back chair, Alexander Jackson Davis, watercolor, ca. 1845, MCNY 35.257.41, gift of Joseph B. Davis

Other watercolors and work by Davis at the Museum can be viewed in high resolution here.

Nine tracery-back chairs designed by Davis are known to have been produced in the late 1850s.[3] Four are oak and are probably those commissioned for and used in the estate of John J. Herrick (1816 or 1817-1887) constructed between 1855 and 1859 in Tarrytown, New York. Herrick was a flour merchant who spent so much of his considerable wealth on the project that he was forced to sell the house, called Ericstan, in 1865.[4] For over forty years, the building was used as a school for girls before being demolished in 1944. Records at the Metropolitan Museum of Art indicate that in 1853, Davis had eight armchairs, eight side chairs, a table and a bed frame made for Ericstan.[5] The history and location of most of these objects is not known.

The chair in the Museum’s collection has the most complete provenance of the five known walnut examples, as it was donated in 1935 by Davis’s son, Joseph Beale Davis, who inherited it from his father. Tradition suggests that his father had so admired the design that he had the chair made for his own home. While that story is not at odds with the chair’s material, period of manufacture, or style, it is known that Joseph Davis took some liberties with his father’s history (in some cases adding dubious inscriptions to his father’s works on paper). Without any demonstrable evidence there is no way to be certain Alexander Jackson Davis commissioned this chair for his own use.

Much about this chair history remains in question, such as why and for whom the walnut versions were made. More examples may exist. There is no consensus on which manufacturers produced furniture designed by Davis and for how many years. There is much work to be done on Gothic Revival furniture in New York City and the United States as a whole, and its decline in popularity has resulted in gaps in our understanding of it. As scholarship advances, perhaps more furniture will be attributed to Davis and a more complete ownership history of these chairs will emerge. For now, befitting its style, much about this chair remains a beautiful mystery.

[1] The most recent examination of Davis is Amelia Peck, Alexander Jackson Davis: American Architect 1803-1892, ex. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992.

[2] A recent, well-illustrated resource on the Gothic Revival style in the United States by David B. Warren, Stuart P. Feld and Elizabeth Feld, In Pointed Style: The Gothic Revival in America, 1800-1860, ex. cat. Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 2006.

[3] They are not all identical in form or material. One is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2007.472) which has another on loan from the descendants of Jane Davies, a scholar who published numerous works on Davis in the second half of the twentieth century. One is in the collection of the High Museum of Art (1981.1000.46) and a fourth was published as in a private collection in New York City in 1987. See: Henry Hawley, “American Furniture of the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, vol. 74., no. 5 (May 1987): 186-215, p. 191. The provenance of the five known walnut examples is even less clear. Two are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2007.472 and a loan from Davies’ descendants), one at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (2013.1.1), and another at the Cleveland Museum of Art (1986.11). A walnut example appeared on the New York City market in 2013 from the collection of David Parker, and is presumably now in a private collection.

[4] See Metropolitan Museum of Art 1924.24.66.10, a watercolor by Davis of Ericstan.

[5] Katharine Morrison McClinton, “Furniture and interiors designed by A.J. Davis,” Connoisseur (June 1969): 54-61, p. 59.

The World’s Richest Boy – the Life of William B. Leeds

Let’s face it: we all have baby albums, those pictures documenting our progression from newborns into children that we pray our parents don’t show anyone.  When I came across a photo album entitled The first six years of William B. Leeds, donated to the City Museum by his daughter in 1989, I winced in sympathy for whomever this Mr. Leeds was,  knowing that these baby pictures are soon to be uploaded to our Collection Portal and thus available to anyone with a computer and internet access.

The more I started researching William Bateman Leeds, however, the more fascinated I became with his life. Interchangeably heralded by the press as, “The World’s Richest Boy” or “Poor Little Rich Boy,” Leeds managed a small army of servants by the time he was nine and topped it off by marrying a Greek princess at the age of 19. How can one not be at least a tiny bit intrigued by this young man?

Unknown photographer. 3 Weeks [The first six years of William B. Leeds.]. 1902. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.1.

William B. Leeds, Jr. was born on September 19, 1902 to the so-called “Tin Plate King” William B. Leeds Sr. and the beautiful Nonnie May “Nancy” Stewart. The Leeds were already fabulously wealthy by this point, owing to the business ventures of the senior Leeds (a merger with J. P. Morgan’s  U.S. Steel paid quite handsomely).  From 1902 to around 1908 the family lived at 987 Fifth Avenue and were fixtures of  the most elite of social circles.

Unknown photographer. Exterior [Residence of William B. Leeds 987 5th Avenue, New York.]. ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.2.3.

 The playroom of the young William Leeds, where many of the following pictures were taken, shows the lavish environment in which he was raised.

Unknown photographer. Playroom [Residence of William B. Leeds 987 5th Avenue, New York.] ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.2.17

Unknown photographer. Playroom [Residence of William B. Leeds 987 5th Avenue, New York.] ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.2.17

 Within these protected walls, the young Leeds grew up and, thanks to the album, we can see his progress. One of the  most interesting aspects is how his Christmases become more elaborate year after year. The first was a simple affair due to the fact he was a mere three months old and probably wasn’t expecting much.

Unknown photographer. 3 Months [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1902. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.4.

But each successive year things got a little more spectacular.

Unknown photographer. 2nd Christmas – 15 Months [The first six years of William B. Leeds.]. 1903. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.16.

With so many gifts, William had to be photographed twice to be seen with all of them.

Unknown photographer. 3rd Christmas - 27 Months [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.21.

Unknown photographer. 3rd Christmas – 27 Months [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.21.

And yet again with so many gifts, he had to be photographed twice.

Unknown photographer. 4th Christmas 1906 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1906. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.32.

Unknown photographer. 4th Christmas 1906 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1906. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.32.

And this is perhaps the most awe-inspiring pre-3-D Christmas portrait I’ve ever seen.

Unknown photographer. 6th Christmas [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.41

Unknown photographer. 6th Christmas [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.41

And finally, the boy turns into a young man with more serious gifts.

Unknown photographer. 7th Christmas [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1909. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.45.

Unknown photographer. 7th Christmas [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1909. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.45.

William seems to have been a typical child, enjoying playing with his impressive selection of toys and costumes.

Unknown photographer. 3 Years & 3 Mo. 1906 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.]. 1906. Museum of the City of New York.

Unknown photographer. 3 Years & 3 Mo. 1906 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.]. 1906. Museum of the City of New York.

Unknown photographer. 4 Years & 3 Mo. 1907 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1907. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.36.

Unknown photographer. 4 Years & 3 Mo. 1907 [The first six years of William B. Leeds.] 1907. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.36.

William’s life, sadly, was not all presents and playing. For some reason, his mother, Nancy, believed her son to be frailer than most and kept him secluded from the outside world for much of his childhood. This was exacerbated when his father died in 1908, and the details of the very generous will were shared with seemingly every newspaper from California to London.  Nine-year-old William was now the the proud inheritor of a cool $30,000,000 to $40,000,000 (nearly a billion dollars in today’s money). Nancy moved the young William into an estate in Montclair, New Jersey, complete with nearly 20 servants, two detectives to follow his every move and deter kidnappers, and a French limousine with a chauffeur and footman to get William to the prestigious Montclair Academy everyday. (To read more about William’s young life, read this article, fittingly titled “Young Leeds Rules Mansion”.)

As for Nancy, she left William in the very capable hands of the servants and detectives and traveled to London to try her luck as a dollar princess (read Lindsay’s fabulous post on what a dollar princess is here.) Soon she was the talk of English society.  She also made headlines when she stated in a 1911 interview, “I think I shall educate William in England. You see, he is fortunately or unfortunately wealthy in his own right. He will grow up to be ‘rich’ and I do not think that the sons of American millionaires are a particular credit to society because in their idleness they become dissipated. They do not work and most of them drink. Hostesses here often have to apologize for the condition of their young men guests, whereas in England no man would ever appear twice in an intoxicated state. Of course, the young men in the social life of England do not work, but they go in for sports and are healthy, strong and normal – and they do not drink as much as the idle young men of America.”

Later that year, she enrolled William at Eton, where she famously gave him an allowance of only 2 pounds every quarter. It should also be noted that she railed against the press for calling attention her son’s wealth, as she pointed out that much of it was locked in trusts and he could only get $500,000 once he turned 35. The press, and the public, didn’t care to listen.

Unknown photographers, The first six years of William B. Leeds [Two portraits of William B. Leeds.] ca. 1909. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.48.

Unknown photographers. The first six years of William B. Leeds [Two portraits of William B. Leeds.] ca. 1909. Museum of the City of New York. 89.3.1.48.

The story doesn’t end there. Nancy became a literal (dollar) princess when she married Prince Christopher of Greece in 1920 after a six year engagement. She later changed her name to the much grander Princess Anastasia of Greece and Denmark.

At this point, our William was busy being a globe-trotting teenager. He had nearly lost his arm due to an infected bug bite in Sumatra, but was on his way to a lifelong love of traveling and yachting. He became a fixture on the gossip pages as the dashing gentleman adventurer, “Billy” Leeds.

In 1921 he traveled to Greece to be with his mother after she was diagnosed with cancer. Two days later he was engaged to the 17 year old Princess Xenia of Greece after knowing her for all of 24 hours. (Nancy was so distraught she cried for three days and nights.) Despite Nancy’s misgivings that they were both too young, they married.

They were the toast of the town wherever they went, especially in Oyster Bay where they lived. Their marriage was filled with constant traveling and William’s adventures with his ever growing fleet of boats. After 9 years, however, the relationship apparently couldn’t withstand the pressure from the constant scrutiny of the gossip pages; the couple divorced in 1930.

Over the next few decades, William was remarried to a woman he rescued from a  sinking rowboat, and they spent much of their time traveling around the world in his yachts.  When World War II struck, he gave his lavish yachts to the government to aid the war effort, which was a highlight of his long history of extravagant philanthropic gestures.

Sadly, William’s end came far too soon. After being diagnosed with cancer, William committed suicide on New Year’s Eve of 1971 on his estate in the Virgin Islands. He was 69.

(For the most detailed collection of information and sources pertaining to the Leeds family, go here.)

Happy 25th Birthday to the Internet

Last week the Internet turned a quarter of a century old.  On March 12, 1989, a British computer scientist named Sir Tim Berners-Lee proposed what he called an “information management” system that allowed already linked computers to share data. Before that, there was the APRANET, which stood for Advanced Research Project Agency Network. It originated in the 1960s out of the Department of Defense and was largely a Cold War initiative that allowed communication between educational and research facilities across the country. Like that system, Berners-Lee’s information system was primarily text based. It wasn’t until Web browsers emerged in the 1990s, allowing users to view graphics online, that adoption of the technology skyrocketed.

A precursor to the interwebs. Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) National City Bank. Tube system, central exchange. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.1070

A precursor to the interwebs. Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) National City Bank. Tube system, central exchange. ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.1070

The Pew Research Internet Project recently released data about the impact of the Internet on the daily lives of Americans. Some of the most striking facts:

  • 87% of adults in the USA use the Internet, up from 14% in 1995.
  • 90% of users believe the Internet is a positive force in their lives; 76% believe it is positive for society in general.
  • 58% of American adults own a smartphone, up from 35% just three years ago.

The rise of the Internet has had a profound effect on cultural heritage institutions and how they approach providing access to their collections. Not long ago, visitors had to travel to a museum or an archive in order to get a glimpse of art, manuscripts, or artifacts. Now, those precious objects are just a URL away.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). [Columns of Pennsylvania Station.] ca. 1940. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.16802

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). [Columns of Pennsylvania Station.] ca. 1940. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.16802

The Museum of the City of New York holds more than three quarters of a million objects in its collections: photographs, negatives, prints, maps, manuscripts, ephemera, costumes, furniture, paintings, drawings, and all kinds of other items relating to New York City, its history, and its inhabitants. In 2008 the City Museum received a grant from the Leon Levy Foundation to begin digitizing its collection of Wurts Bros. negatives. In the six years since then, we’ve made more and more of the Museum’s collections accessible to users across the globe. We’ve been helped along the way by too many people and organizations to name, but some of the ones to whom we’re grateful include Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Charina Endowment Fund, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, Orange Logic, Analogous, Michael Ulsaker, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. They’ve all provided funding and / or services that helped us get collections online.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Broadway to the Battery, May 4, 1938. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.16

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Broadway to the Battery, May 4, 1938. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.16

The Museum began by digitizing the photography collections that were the most popular and in-demand: works by Berenice Abbott, the Byron Company, Samuel H. Gottscho, Jacob Riis, and the Wurts Bros. In December 2010 we launched on online Collections Portal with around 30,000 of these photographs. Since then, we built our own in-house state of the art digital lab where we’re able to photograph a wide variety of object types. There are now more than 135,000 images online, including our Martin Wong Graffiti Collection, part of which is also on view at the Museum in the exhibition City as Canvas; paintings from our marine and portrait paintings collections; garments made by couturiers Charles Worth and Mainbocher; photographs taken by a teenaged Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine; and much, much more. We have one of the most extensive collections anywhere of imagery of New York City’s streets; many New Yorkers are able to see what the block where they live looked like in the past and use the magnifying glass tool to examine the minutest details, such as signs in shop windows. (If you find the building or the street where you live, let us know in the comment section!)

Edmund V. Gillon.  [Looking east on Broadway from Bedford Avenue and South 6th Street.] ca. 1975. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.1.262

Edmund V. Gillon.
[Looking east on Broadway from Bedford Avenue and South 6th Street.] ca. 1975. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.1.262

To date, more than half a million visitors from nearly every country in the world (a shout out to our users from Malawi, Liberia, Greenland, and St. Vincent & Grenadines) have come to the Collections Portal, collectively viewing nearly 6 million pages.

Our digital team is currently made up of two catalogers, two photographers, and one IT manager. They take the pictures, create the metadata that allows users to find what they’re looking for, and look after nearly 200 terabytes of digital image files. An entire department of archivists, curators, and collection specialists care for the objects before they ever even make it to the lab for photography. Neither this blog nor the Collections Portal would be possible without the fine work of all these people. And we wouldn’t be able to bring all of it together on the Web without the Internet, so many happy returns of the day!

Copy stand and camera in the City Museum's onsite, state-of-the-art digital photograph studio.

Copy stand and camera in the City Museum’s onsite, state-of-the-art digital photograph studio. Photo by Mia Moffett.

Animals on Stage

Thanks to a generous Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, I have the pleasure as Collections Assistant to aid in processing over 30,000 unique images documenting theatrical productions on New York City’s Broadway and Off-Broadway stages from the Museum of the City of New York’s Theater Collection. The grant allows the museum to digitize these images and make them accessible to the public, including performing arts scholars and theater enthusiasts across the nation.

The notion of Broadway evokes glamorous stars of the stage – Mary Martin, Tallulah Bankhead, and Gene Kelly, among others. But some of the most charismatic and hardworking actors from some of Broadway’s notable productions of the past weren’t humans at all.

Animals have been acting in stage productions on Broadway for decades, providing companionship to characters and making audiences smile.  Rigorous training goes into preparing an animal for a role, teaching him or her multiple commands so that the same tasks may be performed consistently several times a week on cue. One early canine actor played Flush in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

Flush, the cocker spaniel from The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

Flush, the Cocker Spaniel from The Barretts of Wimpole Street. 1931. Museum of the City of New York, 33.34.35.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a play written by Rudolf Besier in 1930 and based on the romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. It opened at the Empire Theatre on Broadway in 1931 starring Katharine Cornell and Brian Aherne, and ran for 370 performances. Flush the Cocker Spaniel was not only in the original production but also in the 1934 and 1945 revivals. According to the directions written by Besier in the official play script, a dog can sometimes be more of a diva than a human actor. Besier advised: “In the original production, the dog ‘Flush’ was an actor. But since to train a dog is sometimes even more difficult than to train a human actor, it is suggested that the dog should not be allowed on stage.” This did not deter any of the Broadway productions, however, and the dog playing Flush got a sparkling review by Andre Sennwald in the New York Times in 1934: “A report on the acting would be woefully inadequate without a tribute to Flush, the Cocker Spaniel of Elizabeth. His almost human and occasionally superhuman powers of expression are so remarkable as to cause some alarm for the superiority of the human race.”

Dog trainer Paul Sydell and canine assistants Suzie, Smoothy, and Dingle-Dingle

Dog trainer Paul Sydell practicing with his canine assistants Suzie, Smoothy, and Dingle-Dingle. 1961. Museum of the City of New York, 68.80.4927.

Paul Sydell with Smoothy the dog.

Paul Sydell with Smoothy the dog in Carnival. 1961. Museum of the City of New York, 68.80.4945.

In the musical Carnival a naïve, orphaned girl is taken in as an apprentice to a traveling French circus. Opening in 1961 at the Imperial Theatre, the show included several sensational acts like stilt-walkers, trick cyclists, and of course dog acrobats Suzie, Smoothy, and Dingle-Dingle with their trainer Paul Sydell. According to the show’s original Playbill, Sydell and the dogs were a top variety act and led a very glamorous life: “They have entertained audiences in such supper clubs as the Copacabana, the Palmer House, and Chez Parce. They have played all the leading theatres including the Radio City Music Hall, and appeared on all the leading television shows including those of Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, and Patti Page. Mrs. Sydell travels with the act and cooks for Suzie, Smoothy, and Dingle-Dingle. Once a week, after their bath, they get egg yolk enlivened by a dash of cognac.”

Jimmy Durante and Big Rosie the elephant

Jimmy Durante and Big Rosie the elephant in Jumbo. 1935. Museum of the City of New York, 37.414.10.

Just to show that not all animal actors come in small furry packages, Big Rosie the elephant made her stage debut in Jumbo, a musical about a financially-strapped circus which opened on Broadway at the Hippodrome Theatre on November 16, 1935. At the end of each performance, Jimmy Durante would lay down on the stage and permit Rosie to place her foot upon his head. The large, 5,000-seat theater was turned into a big top circus tent where various specialty acts, including acrobats and animal actors, performed during the show. Durante and Big Rosie apparently brought the house down at each performance with the famous ending line: when Durante tries to sneak off with Rosie, away from creditors, they ask him where he’s attempting to go with the elephant; Durante answered, “What elephant?”

Sarah Jessica Parker as Annie with Sandy the dog in Martin Charnin's Annie. Museum of the City of New York, 79.56.5.

Sarah Jessica Parker as Annie with Sandy the dog in Annie. 1979. Museum of the City of New York, 79.56.5.

Perhaps one of the most famous animal actors of all was Sandy, named for the character he played in the 1977 Broadway production of Annie, originally starring Andrea McArdle. (She was succeeded by a fourteen-year old Sarah Jessica Parker in 1979.) Sandy had led a hard-knock life as a stray and was one day away from being put down at the Connecticut Humane Society when trainer William Berloni adopted him, paying $8 and giving him a new life in the theater. Sandy was trained to be calm in front of thousands of people and learned to heel, stay, bark on cue, and cross the stage to search for Annie night after night. He went on to appear in 2,377 performances of Annie over seven years, performing twice at the Tony awards and six times at the White House, entertaining Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Sandy’s titular autobiography, published by Simon & Schuster, told the story in the “first person” of a dog that goes from being an abused puppy to a Broadway star. Sandy’s memory is honored through The Sandy Fund, affiliated with the Humane Society of New York, which has raised over $10,000 for animal rights, welfare, and rescue. Sandy’s story is an example of a classic rags-to-riches story, proving that even a mutt from Connecticut can make it big on the stage.

John Bute Holmes, surveyor and polygamist.

To quote my colleague Susannah in her fascinating post from a few weeks ago, “Hints about long vanished and forgotten aspects of New York surround us if we know where to look.”  This is no recent concept, and was in fact intriguing to City Surveyor John Bute Holmes (ca.1820-1887) as far back as the 1860s,  continuing up to his death in the 1880s.   Holmes created maps that showed dualities – the city as it had been and the city as it was – and he  himself led a life of multiplicities, leading to a certain fogginess surrounding basic biographical details. You’ll understand why he attempted to remain rather elusive  later in the post.

Holmes claimed to have been born on the Island of Mauritus in the Indian Ocean in 1822 (an article published shortly after his death states he was just shy of 69 years old in 1887,  implying his birth year would have beem 1818);  have moved to Cork, Ireland, at the age of eight;  and, according to him, he left Cork to emigrate to the United States in 1838, 1841, or maybe 1842, depending on the particular situation he was trying to talk himself out of.  He worked as a surveyor, moving back and forth between Cork, London, and Owego, New York, until 1848, and then resided in Brooklyn and Staten Island until 1856.  His exact whereabouts between 1856 and 1873 are somewhat vague (perhaps as a result of the fact he was hiding from the wife he had left destitute), though he is assumed to have been in or near New York City based upon his City Surveyor position.  He eventually landed on a farm in New Jersey and died there in 1887.

It was while conducting the assessment of maps in the J. Clarence Davies Collection, as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant project, that I first came across a number of maps executed by Holmes.  These maps featured farm boundaries, property lines, streets, and lanes from the 18th century or even earlier, overlaid with the existing street grid from the second half of the 19th century, when Holmes was conducting his survey.  The map below of the East and West De Lancey Farms is a perfect example, showing De Lancey (now condensed to “Delancey”) Street  cutting right through the middle of the original farm property, running east to west.

John Bute Holmes. Map of the East and West De Lancey Farms.  Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2902.

John Bute Holmes (ca.1820-1887). Map of the East and West De Lancey Farms. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2902.

(Click on any of the maps in this post to be taken to the high resolution image in the Collections Portal, where you have the capability to zoom in on the finest detail.)

The maps are extremely helpful when trying to identify streets whose names have changed. The map of the Bayard Farm, shows a number of such streets with their previous names and the names they had at the time of Holmes’s surveys.

John Bute Holmes (ca. 1820-1887) and Th. Casimir Goerck (d. 1798).  Map of the Bayard Farm.  Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.2811.

John Bute Holmes (ca. 1820-1887) and Th. Casimir Goerck (d. 1798). Map of the Bayard Farm. Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.2811.

The Map of Kip’s Bay Farm closely follows the boundaries of today’s neighborhood of Kips Bay.  You’ll see in this map that some streets didn’t just change names, but actually changed in layout, as well.

John Bute Holmes (ca.1820-1887).  Map of the Kip's Bay Farm.  Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2823.

John Bute Holmes (ca.1820-1887). Map of the Kip’s Bay Farm. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2823.

The Museum holds several more maps from this series, referred to as the “John Bute Holmes Conveyancing Maps,” published by M. (Matthew) Dripps, including the key to how they all fit together.  While the entire series hasn’t yet been digitized, you can view a number of them on the Collections Portal by clicking here.

The more time I spent with the Holmes maps, the more I began to wonder about the man behind them.  I always wonder what used to be here and how did this street get its name as I walk down New York City’s streets.  I envisioned John Bute Holmes doing the same thing, nearly 150 years ago.  Was John Bute Holmes a kindred spirit?  After a little research, however, I began to feel amazed and even baffled by Mr. Holmes.

While I’ve had trouble unraveling the exact chronology, John Bute Holmes was married to at least four women during his life, sued by a fifth for “impeaching her chastity” as a result of “breach of promise of marriage,” known to have lived with another “as husband and wife,” and was reputed to have killed a policeman with whose wife he was involved.  Some of these relationships appear to have overlapped, and most of the wives were unaware of the previous wives, even when the unions had been dissolved legally.  It wasn’t until Holmes’s death in 1887 that the four legal (or at least to their knowledge) wives came face to face in an attempt to claim their inheritance.  The dual nature of Holmes’s maps strangely seems to reflect the duplicitous nature of Holmes’s life.  Did Holmes get so entranced by his maps that he felt he was living in multiple time periods, and therefor entitled to multiple wives?

 F. (Fanny) Palmer (1812-1876).  Love, Marriage and Separation.  Museum of the City of New York. X2012.5.34.

F. (Fanny) Palmer (1812-1876). Love, Marriage and Separation. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.5.34.

A few different accounts in the New York Times attempt to sort it out, and briefly, this is what I’ve come away with:

  • Wife # 1: Anna Maria Clear, married Cork Ireland 1838.  Holmes left her in 1856, Anna filed for divorce in 1875.  One daughter.
  • Living as husband and wife:  Ida Kerr, dates unknown.
  • Wife #2: Hannah Wright Williamson (also his half-sister), marriage date unknown. Three children.
  • Sued for breach of marriage promise: May Chamberlayne, 1874.
  • Wife#3: Mary Sullivan Browning, marriage date unknown.  One son.
  • Wife#4: Katie Meadows, married ca. 1886.

The two women who seemed to feel they had the strongest claim to Holmes’s inheritance were first wife Anna, who was 64 at the time of his death, and final wife, Katie, who was just 19.  Just like Holmes’s maps represented the city in two time periods, these two women represented Holmes as he was once, and Holmes as he was in the present day.  Click here to read the May 27, 1887 New York Times article for more details on the fight amongst the wives and their children.

Cleopatra’s Needle

An obelisk, one of antiquity’s most enduring forms, is celebrating its 133rd year in New York City as the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Later this year, it is also scheduled to undergo conservation.  Cleopatra’s Needle, as it has long been known, stands approximately 70 feet high on the east side of Central Park, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art near 83rd Street.  It is the city’s oldest man-made public sculpture.

Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park on a postcard published in 1917 by American Art Publishing Company, MCNY F2011.33.940.

Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park on a postcard published in 1917 by American Art Publishing Company, MCNY F2011.33.940.

Cleopatra’s Needle is one of a pair of granite obelisks (the other today sits on the banks of the Thames in London) from the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis (modern-day Cairo) built to commemorate the 40th year of the reign of Thothmes III (1476-1425 BCE).  In 12 BCE, Roman Emperor Augustus moved the obelisks to Alexandria.  Both obelisks were hence known as Cleopatra’s Needle, though seven years had passed since Cleopatra’s death.

In 1869, the Khedive of Egypt gave a Cleopatra’s Needle to the United States after the opening of the Suez Canal.  Because of the challenging logistics, it took over a decade to arrange its transport, which was overseen by Lieutenant Commander Henry Honneychurch Gorringe (1841-1885).  The project included the construction of a specially-designed railroad track, for which William H. Vanderbilt donated over $100,000, for transport up the Hudson River.[1]  When the obelisk was officially installed in New York City in January of 1881, tens of thousands of people turned up to see it in person, and manufacturers and retailers responded to this enthusiasm by producing souvenirs and memorabilia related to the event.  One such example, a bronze model of the obelisk, is included in the Museum of the City of New York’s collection (MCNY 89.50.4).  The model was designed by Gorringe and cast and retailed by Tiffany & Company.[2]  Its lengthy inscription honors Henry George Stebbins (1811-1881), president of the Central Park Commisson in 1880-1881 and a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vanderbilt’s donation, and Gorringe’s leadership in engineering its transport and erection.

Model of Cleopatra's Needle.  Produced by Tiffany & Company for the 1881 unveiling of the obelisk.  MCNY 89.50.4, gift of Mrs. Rowland Stebbins, Jr.

Produced by Tiffany & Company for the 1881 unveiling of the obelisk. MCNY 89.50.4, gift of Mrs. Rowland Stebbins, Jr.

Inscription on the base of obelisk model, MCNY 89.50.4.

Inscription on the base of obelisk model, MCNY 89.50.4.

The City Museum’s collection also includes an assortment of memorabilia related to the obelisk’s installation, including invitations to its unveiling, tickets to view it issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and medals commemorating the event.

Postcard invitation to the opening celebration for the obelisk, 1881, MCNY 45.124.2, gift of Beverly R. Robinson.

Postcard invitation to the opening celebration for the obelisk, 1881, MCNY 45.124.2, gift of Beverly R. Robinson.

Verso of postcard 45.124.2.

Verso of postcard 45.124.2.

Today, there are over two dozen extant ancient Egyptian obelisks, only nine of which remain in Egypt.[3]  These obelisks have long been viewed by other cultures as tangible links to the greatness of ancient Egyptian civilization and installing one has been imbued with great political symbolism. The ancient Roman Emperor Augustus used obelisks in his Counter-Reformation propaganda campaign, and King Louis-Philippe of France installed an obelisk, also sometimes referred to as Cleopatra’s Needle, in the 1830s in the Place de la Concorde, the site in Paris of executions during the French Revolution. In New York City, Cleopatra’s Needle can be seen as a proclamation of New York’s status as an international city, a self-conscious statement of importance.  In the postcard from around 1945 illustrated below, the obelisk may be seen alongside other New York City architectural landmarks.

Postcard. ca. 1945, MCNY X2011.34.2735.

Postcard. ca. 1945, MCNY X2011.34.2735.

Since the obelisk’s installation, the City of New York, its caretaker, has made efforts to preserve its structure and make its history accessible to the public.  In 1940, then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses commissioned The New~York Historical Society to create a permanent plaque commemorating the monument’s history.[4]  Throughout the twentieth century, the surface of the obelisk degraded.  In early 2011, Egypt’s then-Minister of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, wrote to the Parks department imploring it to take measures to protect the obelisk from environmental factors that he believed were contributing to its degradation.[5]  He went as far as to imply that Egypt’s government would move to have the obelisk returned to Egypt if no action was taken.  This summer, the Central Park Conservancy will begin a half-million dollar conservation program for the obelisk which will clean and stabilize its structure so it may “endure as a testament to the genius of a vanished civilization, an awe-inspiring tower holding its own on an island of modern skyscrapers.”[6]

The model can be seen alongside related objects in the exhibition “Cleopatra’s Needle” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 8th.


[1] Margot Gayle and Michele Cohen, The Art Commission and the Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture, Prentice Hall, 1988, p. 226

[2] Gorringe also published a book in 1882, Egyptian Obelisks, on the history of the form and of his involvement in the transport of Cleopatra’s Needle.  Martina D’Alton adapts this information in an issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin published in 1993 entirely devoted to the obelisk entitled “The New York Obelisk or How Cleopatra’s Needle Came to New York and What Happened When It Got Here.”

[3] The others are in Israel (1), the United Kingdom (4), Italy (11), Turkey (1), and France (1)

[4] George A. Zabriskie, “The President’s Communication,” The New-York Historical Society, Quarterly Bulletin, vol. XXIV, no. 4, October 1940, pp. 104-112

[5] Francie Diep and Joseph Castro, “Egypt or Central Park: Where Does an Ancient Obelisk Belong?” The New York Times, City Room blog, July 6, 2011

[6] Michael Z. Wise, “A Cult Object Gets Its Close-Up,” The New York Times, January 20, 2014

Highlights from the City Museum’s Graffiti Collection

When painter Martin Wong moved to New York City from San Francisco in 1978, he marveled at what many others considered a blight – graffiti scrawled on the surfaces of the entire city. Wong was not a graffiti writer but nonetheless recognized graffiti’s artistic value and befriended many writers. He perceived the transience of graffiti and encouraged writers to sell him their sketchbooks and paintings. In 1994 he donated his entire collection of graffiti to the City Museum. Now for the first time visitors to the Museum can see works from the Martin Wong Collection in the City as Canvas exhibition, open through August 24.

The Martin Wong Collection comprises more than 300 paintings and mixed media works, along with over 45 sketchbooks, also called black books. Writers used black books to collect tags from other writers in addition to sketching pieces destined for trains or canvas. Because of their ephemeral nature, few black books survive today. Below are some highlights, a few of which are not part of the City as Canvas exhibition.

Cliff 159 started writing in the Bronx in 1970. He specialized in whole-car pieces and also was one of the first writers to incorporate comic characters like Beetle Bailey into his work.

Clifford (Cliff 159) Brown. Cliff... Page in Chi Chi 133's black book. ca. 1975. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.266.30

Cliff 159. Cliff… [Page in Chi Chi 133's black book.] ca. 1975. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.266.30

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Beetle Bailey by Cliff. 1974. Museum of the City of New York. 95.98.5

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Beetle Bailey by Cliff. 1974. Museum of the City of New York. 95.98.5. © Estate of Jack Stewart.

Riff 170 began writing in the Bronx in the early 1970s. Other writers placed a premium on getting their names up and becoming well-known, but Riff favored artistic innovation and wrote under many names such as Worm, Cash, Dove 2, and Conan. Riff’s novel approach inspired creativity in successive generations of writers, many of whom are featured in this blog.

RIFF 170. Cash Page in Wicked Gary's piece book. 1972-1973. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.277.12

RIFF 170. Cash [Page in Wicked Gary's piece book.] 1972-1973. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.277.12

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Cash, by RIFF I. 1974. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.7.1. © Estate of Jack Stewart.

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Cash, by RIFF I. 1974. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.7.1. © Estate of Jack Stewart.

Like Riff, Billy 167′s career began in the Bronx in the early 1970s. He focused strictly on lettering, for which he would became renowned. The image below comes from a piece book that is believed to have belonged to Peso 131 – also note Jester’s tag.

Billy 167. Billy Page in piece book. ca. 1980. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.278.3

Billy 167. Billy [Page in piece book.] ca. 1980. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.278.3

Ironically, Billy 167 would later work for the MTA as an electrician. He passed away in the 1980s but his imaginative lettering influenced countless other artists like Seen UA.

Photograph by Tracy 168. Billy 167. Used with permission by Tracy 168.

Photograph by Michael (Tracy 168) Tracy. Billy 167. 1982. Used with permission by Michael Tracy.

Daze began writing in the late 1970s. He successfully managed the transition from trains to galleries in the 1980s, and continues to have a prolific career as an artist.

Christopher (DAZE) Ellis (1962-). DAZE with tags. 1982. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.90

Christopher (DAZE) Ellis (1962-). [DAZE with tags.] 1982. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.90

From Daze’s black book is a list of subway lines and the writers assigned to them. In addition to Daze’s tag, you can see his aliases below – Bode, Chill, and Wind 2.

List of subway lines and the graffiti writers assigned to them in Daze's black book. 1983. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.58

[List of subway lines and the graffiti writers assigned to them in DAZE's black book.] 1983. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.58

Years before @149st compiled a list of writing crews this would have been a good reference for any outsider:

List of the full names of graffiti crews and their corresponding acronyms in DAZE's black book. ca. 1981. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.92

[List of the full names of graffiti crews and their corresponding acronyms in DAZE's black book.] ca. 1981. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.92

And finally, the end result of Daze’s hard work, under the Wind 2 alias:

Christopher (DAZE) Ellis (1962-). Inside back cover of DAZE's black book. ca. 1981. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.220

Christopher (DAZE) Ellis (1962-). [Inside back cover of DAZE's black book.] ca. 1981. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.263.220

Kool 131, Chain 3, and Mr. Jinx 174 formed the writing crew TDS (The Death Squad) in the late 1970s. TDS favored style over fame, although they became famous anyway. When member Bear 167 passed away in 1984, TDS created a beautiful memorial book:

Maurice (Kool Aid 131) Antonio. Kool Aid 131 Death Squad TDS Pres. Page of TDS's black book in memory of Bear 167. ca. 1985. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.4

Maurice (Kool 131) Antonio. Kool Aid 131 Death Squad TDS Pres. [Page of TDS's black book in memory of Bear 167.] ca. 1985. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.4

While the book mourns Bear 167′s passing, it also celebrates his life as an artist with vibrant colors.

TDS Vice Pres. Part Page of TDS's black book in memory of Bear 167. ca. 1985. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.6

Part One. TDS Vice Pres. Part [Page of TDS's black book in memory of Bear 167.] ca. 1985. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.6

Melvin (NOC 167) Samuels. Bear 167 In Memory of Him Page of TDS's black book in memory of Bear 167. ca. 1985. Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.56

Melvin (NOC 167) Samuels. Bear 167 In Memory of Him [Page of TDS's black book in memory of Bear 167.] ca. 1985. Martin Wong Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 94.114.271.56

Even if you are unable to visit the Museum, you can still explore the Martin Wong Collection here.

A visit to Sochi, 1939.

Postcard issued by Grinnell Lithographic Company. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  New York World's Fair, Exposition Souvenir Corporation, ca. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 88.63.17

Postcard issued by Grinnell Lithographic Company. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. New York World’s Fair, Exposition Souvenir Corporation, ca. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 88.63.17

What do the  2014 Winter Olympics and the 1939 New York World’s Fair have in common?  The promotion of Sochi, Russia as a tourist destination.

As mentioned in a earlier post, the 1939 New York World’s Fair featured state and international pavilions.  These spaces served to educate visitors to the Fair about the history, politics, arts, culture, economy, and industry of a particular location; and also served as tourism bureaus.   The Pavilion for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union, as Russia was known in 1939, was an example of increased cooperation with the West evident in the 1930′s.

Materials such the “Intertourist Map of the Soviet Union” (shown below) featured example travel itineraries through the U.S.S.R.  One such “tour” spent four days in Sochi, located on the northeast coast of the Black Sea.  Note the total cost for a third class travel package – $110.00.

Map issued by Intertourist, Inc. Excerpt from Intertourist Map of the Soviet Union. Ca. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.60.

Map issued by Intertourist, Inc. Excerpt from Intertourist Map of the Soviet Union. Ca. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.60.

SSochi travel brochure. Intourist, ca. 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.61.

Sochi travel brochure. Intourist, ca. 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.61.

The Soviet Pavilion also distributed informational brochures on specific destinations.  The brochure for Sochi is to the right.  While one would expect some obvious changes in the 75 years in between the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the 2014 Winter Olympics, one difference in the way the city is marketed for the two events jumps out at me right away – the climate.  The brochure to the right depicts a downright tropical scene.  According to the text inside the brochure “The Caucasian shores of the Black Sea, that blissful, sunny corner of the globe, has [sic] always enticed the traveler with the incomparable beauty of its scenery and the wonderful healing power of its climate.”  Yet the Sochi of the Winter Games is just that – wintry.

Bill Morris, Chief Photographer of the New York World's Fair. Snow bedecks the Soviet Pavilion, 1940.  Museum of the City of New York.  1939-1940 New York Worlds Fair Collection.

Bill Morris, Chief Photographer of the New York World’s Fair. Snow bedecks the Soviet Pavilion, 1940. Museum of the City of New York. 1939 -1940 New York World’s Fair Collection.

Before I opened the Sochi travel brochure, I assumed it must look the way I would image most of Russia, and any city hosting the Winter Olympics to look: cold and snowy.  This photograph to the left, of the Soviet Pavilion covered in snow during its dismantling in Flushing Meadows Park following the conclusion of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair much better fits the image I had in mind.  However, the fact is, the climate hasn’t changed; Sochi is simply a city that has seasons.  According to the Washington Post, Sochi is the warmest city to ever host the Winter Olympics, and some initial concerns for this year’s games included avalanche risk and snow drought.

The mysteries of Sochi don’t end with the climate, however.  The 1939 travel brochure boasts, “[T]his lovely resort stretches for 25 kilometers along the sea coast.  Magnificent sanatoria, rest-homes, clinics, and hotels nestle amid…fine bathing places and aquatic sport stations.”  Once again, I’m surprised.  The word “resort” evokes images such as this one:

Excerpt from Sochi pamphlet, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.61.

Excerpt from Sochi travel brochure, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.61.

But “sanatoria, rest-homes, and clinics,” brings to mind something like this:

Excerpt from Sochi pamphlet, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.61.

Excerpt from Sochi brochure, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.61.

nalchick

Nalchick travel brochure. Intourist, ca. 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 95.156.58.

Sarah Kanowski of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports that these sanatoria were the destinations of many Soviet workers who spent up to six weeks “cleari[ing] the coal dust from their lungs.”  While these days, the “resort” aspects of the city seem to outweigh the “clinical” attractions, Sochi still offers curative relaxation, as shown in this photo essay by Simon Schuster from Time.

One still wonders, however, in a country so known for its cold temperatures that the 1939 World’s Fair featured a “Pavilion of the Arctic” as part of the greater Soviet Pavilion, why one of the warmest cities in Russia was chosen for the Winter Olympics.  Why not somewhere like Nalchik, which the brochure to the right describes as featuring a “mantle of snow and snow-clad ridges?”  Perhaps even more remarkable is the glimpse we have at pre-Cold War Russia through the lens of the country’s own tourism marketing materials, and the ability to look at the city now, as it hosts one of the premier sporting events in the world.

The Museum is grateful to the Council on Library and Information Resources , whose support made it possible to share these finds from the 1939 -1940 New York World’s Fair Collection as a result of a generous Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).