Monthly Archives: December 2011

Christmas in New York City

New York has been the setting for many Christmas stories, fables, and traditions. In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia Hanson of 115 West 95th Street wrote to the editor of The Sun, asking if Santa Claus was real. The movie Miracle on 34th Street featured a man named Kris Kringle who began working as Santa Claus during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, Barneys New York, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue attract countless New Yorkers and visitors with their engaging holiday window displays. Here we take a look back at some of the many ways New York has celebrated Christmas.

This picture shows teachers and students gathered around a Christmas tree in a tenement house run by a chapter of the International Order of The King’s Daughters and Sons. Margaret Bottome founded this charitable organization in her New York City home in 1886. The photo was taken around 1897.

Chicago Albumen Works. Jacob A. Riis. King's Daughters Tenement Chapter, Christmas tree in Gotham Court. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.4.228

Jacob Riis took this photo around 1900. Riis, a first generation immigrant from Denmark, sought to improve the living conditions of impoverished New Yorkers by photographing their living conditions.

Jacob A. (Jacob Augustus) Riis. Christmas gifts at 48 Henry Street. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.1.386

Although this photo was taken about 100 years ago, the hustle and bustle of New York’s streets during the holiday shopping season remains the same.

Thomas H. McAllister. Christmas shoppers. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archives. X2010.11.8795

The Salvation Army began using red kettles in 1891 to collect money during the holiday season. In 1901, contributions to the red kettles in New York City provided the poor with a massive sit-down dinner in Madison Square Garden.  This 1906 photo shows a scene familiar to New Yorkers even today.

Byron Company. Charities, Salvation Army Christmas Dinner Kettle. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.17268

The Union Settlement House was founded in 1895 to serve the people of East Harlem. By 1900, more than 3,000 people relied on its services. This photo of caroling children was taken around 1940.

Roy Perry. Union Settlement House, Neighborhood Children Rehearsing Christmas Carols. Museum of the City of New York. 80.102.73

The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is lit every year after Thanksgiving. This tradition began in 1933.

New York times. Christmas tree, Radio City. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8800

Edward Ratcliff. Rockefeller Center at Christmas. Museum of the City of New York Photo Archives. X2010.11.8801

The Manhattan Savings Bank took a particularly festive approach to Christmas. These photos show the bank’s holiday spirit during the 1960s.

Wurts Bros. 45th Street and Vanderbilt Avenue. Manhattan Savings Bank, new branch, front view from east showing Christmas decorations. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.10288

Wurts Bros. 47th Street. Manhattan Savings Bank, Christmas show, ice skaters in. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.10208

Wurts Bros. 47th Street. Manhattan Savings Bank, general view of lobby looking N.E. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.10210

Wurts Bros. 45th Street and Vanderbilt Avenue. Manhattan Savings Bank, Christmas carolers. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.13752

The Evolution of Madison Square: From Potter’s Field to Eataly

In the early-1800′s, Madison Square was a swampy area far outside of the city. The park did not have an auspicious beginning, as its first uses were a potter’s  field and then as an orphanage, the rather optimistically named House of Refuge.

Mesier's Lith. House of Refuge. ca. 1830. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.519.

By the 1840′s a popular road-house, “Madison Cottage” was on the area of land that eventually  would be bordered by Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd Street. This converted yellow farmhouse was for many the first stop leaving the city or the last stop before entering the city proper. It served as a post-tavern, stage coach stop, a cattle exhibition hall, and the de facto congregating point for horse-racing enthusiasts among young men of the upper class.

Madison Cottage. ca. 1850. Museum of the City of New York. 57.300.509.

Madison Cottage remained popular until 1853 when it was razed to make way for a replica of a Roman arena, called Franconi’s Hippodrome, which featured chariot races.  Chariot races! In the Flatiron District!  The wonders didn’t stop there, according to an 1854 guidebook; beyond the horse and chariot races, one could see “surprising gymnastic exercises, ostrich races and performing monkeys, deer, camels and elephants.” With seating for up to 10,000 in a  two-story amphitheater with a 700 foot circumference, the spectacle must have been amazing.

Franconi's Hippodrome. 1853. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1463

Unfortunately, the novelty could not last forever and after a mere two years Franconi’s Hippodrome went bankrupt and the building was razed for the  creation of the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

Exterior of the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Madison Square New York. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.266.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel also did not have an auspicious beginning. Owned by Amos Eno, it was nicknamed “Eno’s Folly” because the idea of a year-round hotel so far uptown was considered ludicrous.  Yet Eno proved his detractors wrong and created one of the most incredible  hotels New York had ever seen.

The building, designed by Griffith Thomas and William Washburn, had all sorts of modern amenities that were so new that people didn’t quite know how to handle them, namely the elevator. Called the “vertical railway” by many guidebooks  they were the first passenger elevators ever. (For a fun side note read  this lovely New York Times about the practicability of elevators.)  Add luxurious decorations and the right clientele, and as it opened on August 23, 1859, the Fifth Avenue Hotel had arrived.

Fifth Avenue Hotel interior. ca. 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 33.278.31.

For the next four decades, the rich, powerful, and those who follow them made the Fifth Avenue Hotel their home away from home.

Byron Company. Street Scenes, Broadway & 23rd Street.1898. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.15225.

Politics was also a constant theme in the hotel. Beyond merely having foreign heads of states, presidents, and military leaders stay in their sumptuous rooms and give lectures in the public spaces, a more localized political group had its beginning inside the hotel lobby.

The “Amen Corner” consisted of two sofas at the end of a wide hallway in the lobby where, as legend has it, every Sunday,  senator and “political boss” Thomas C. Platt and his associates would have their weekly chats with reporters, which Platt began calling his “Sunday school class.” Apparently Platt’s talks were so well-received that people would say “Amen” whenever he touched on a point they agreed with and with that a tradition was born. The Amen Corner lasted long after Platt’s quite luminous political career and eventually became a popular apolitical dining club.

Brown Brothers. Group of men at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.4321.

For almost fifty years The Fifth Avenue hotel had been the epicenter of the gilded age of New York, yet at midnight April 4, 1908,the hotel closed its doors. The furniture, artwork and even the building were auctioned soon after.

Fifth Avenue Hotel with sign announcing auction sale. 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 33.278.17

The building was razed for a skyscraper called the Toy Center which still stands today and is an epicenter of a different kind of New Yorker with the opening of Mario Batali’s Eataly on its lower levels.

“Painting for fun is catching on furiously among celebrated people”

In an October, 1948 article, LOOK magazine proclaimed, “Painting for fun is catching on furiously among celebrated people. About one hundred Big Names have answered a call for help from the Urban League.  Many have picked up a paintbrush for the first time….”

Joan Crawford, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Joe Louis, and many others donated their original artworks to the cause. Many, including an artistically struggling Joan Crawford who was described in LOOK as “attacking the canvas,”  allowed themselves to be documented during the harrowing creative process.

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Celebrities Paint for a Cause, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10653.100,101

Although we don’t have images of Lena Horne, Joe Louis, and Frank Sinatra attending the benefit show, we have pictures of the paintings they produced:

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Celebrities Paint for a Cause, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10653.24

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Celebrities Paint for a Cause, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10653.4

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Celebrities Paint for a Cause, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10653.2

This last image begs the question, “Can and did Frank Sinatra paint the saddest clown ever?”

Betsy Bloomingdale - international socialite, style icon, wife to the heir of the Bloomingdale’s fortune, and close confidante of Nancy Reagan – also donated her efforts:

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Celebrities Paint for a Cause, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10653.108

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Celebrities Paint for a Cause, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10653.108

Here is “boy-next-door” actor Van Johnson hard at work on a painting:


Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Celebrities Paint for a Cause, 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10653.122

The Museum of the City of New York holds hundreds of outtakes from this shoot, images that never made it to print.  Though they were famous in their time, no one on our cataloging team recognizes the celebrities below. Do you?  Help us identify these individuals in our comments section!

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Celebrities Paint for a Cause, 1948. Museum of the City of New York.