Category Archives: Photography Collection

Happy Birthday to Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Manhattan Bridge, Looking Up, 1936. Museum of the City of New York, 49.282.115.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Manhattan Bridge, Looking Up, 1936. Museum of the City of New York, 49.282.115.

Thursday, July 17th, is the 116th anniversary of Berenice Abbott’s birth (1898-1991).  The Museum of the City of New York holds over 2500 works in the collection by Abbott, who grew up in Ohio and lived briefly in New York’s Greenwich Village before moving to Europe in the 1920s, where she developed her photography skills.  Abbott returned to New York City in 1929, and after several attempts to obtain funding, was eventually hired by the Federal Arts Project (FAP) to execute what came to be known as “Changing New York,” a photo-documentary series of 305 images of the changing urban landscape of New York City.  You can read more about this project in an earlier post – Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland’s “Changing New York.”

In the three years since the Museum has launched this blog, numerous posts have drawn on Abbott’s work to narrate the city’s history.

Abbott’s scope was wide, and she traveled to all five boroughs, capturing locations such as Astoria, Queens; Bath Beach, Brooklyn; Shore Acres, Staten Island; Westchester Square, the Bronx; and multiple locations in Manhattan.  Take a a quick moment to peek around on Google Maps, and you’ll see that none of these structures below exist anymore.

43_131_1_430

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) for the Federal Arts Project. 27th Avenue, no. 805, Astoria, 1937. Museum of the City of New York, 43.131.1.430.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Belvedere Restaurant, 1936.  Museum of the City of New York, 49.282.43.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Belvedere Restaurant, 1936. Museum of the City of New York, 49.282.43.

The house in Astoria and the Belvedere Restaurant (located at Bay 16th and Cropsey Avenue, Brooklyn) were replaced with apartment buildings that appear to have been built within a decade of the photographs.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991).  Hope Avenue, no. 139, 1937.  Museum of the City of New York, 89.2.1.252

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Hope Avenue, no. 139, 1937. Museum of the City of New York, 89.2.1.252

The existing house on Hope Avenue in Staten Island may still have the same rock wall around the property, but it’s difficult to say for sure.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Gasoline Station, 1936. Museum of the City of New York, 89.2.2.30

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Gasoline Station, 1936. Museum of the City of New York, 89.2.2.30

As for the Gas Station in the Bronx – Dock Street and East Tremont Avenue don’t even intersect up anymore – Herman H. Lehman High School now sits on the site, though the station may have been demolished as early as the 1930s or 1940s to make way for construction of the nearby Hutchinson River Parkway.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) for the Federal Art Project. Rockefeller Center with Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, 1936. Museum of the City of New York, 43.131.1.311.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) for the
Federal Art Project. Rockefeller Center with Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas, 1936. Museum of the City of New York, 43.131.1.311.

We could fill this post with an endless stream of images Abbott took of businesses, buildings, and landmarks that no longer exist; or some, such as Rockefeller Center, to the left, that were just in the early stages of construction, and remain as icons today.   As we honor the birth week of the photographer who had the foresight to capture the city as such a pivotal point in its history, take a look at her other images online, and see what lost fragments of the city’s urban landscape you can identify.

 

Jack Stewart and the documentation of early graffiti writing

When graffiti first began to appear on subway cars in New York City in the late 1960s, Jack Stewart (1926-2005) became one of the first, along with Jon Naar, to photograph and document it. From late 1972 through early 1973, he photographed subway cars every weekend, documenting the rapidly evolving style of the graffiti writers.

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Worm, By Riff I70, 1972. Museum of the City of New York. 2014.24.2

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Worm, By Riff I70, 1972. Museum of the City of New York. 2014.24.2

Jack Stewart  was born in Atlanta, GA in 1926 and earned a BFA degree at Yale University, where he studied painting with Josef Albers and Willem de Kooning. He moved to New York City in 1949 and began designing and executing mosaic murals on commission. In order to better understand how to work with architects on these commissions, he enrolled in the Columbia University Evening School of Architecture. He also exhibited his paintings throughout his life. Stewart later enrolled as a graduate student at New York University in order to study graffiti more formally, earning his Master’s degree in 1975 and completing his Ph.D. in 1989. His dissertation, Mass Transit Art Subway Graffiti, was published by Abrams in 2009 under the title Graffiti Kings: New York City Mass Transit Art of the 1970s. It was the first academic study of graffiti.

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Lee, Mickey Mouse, Dec. 1977. Museum of the City of New York. 2014.24.6

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Lee, Mickey Mouse, Dec. 1977. Museum of the City of New York. 2014.24.6

Stewart photographed graffiti throughout the 1970s, but he felt the style peaked around 1973. His work predated Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, both of whom began documenting the scene a few years later, and he covered graffiti in more depth than Naar. Over the years Stewart taught at almost every major art school on the east coast, including Pratt Institute, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the New School, the Rhode Island School of Design, and others. In the last decades of his life, he held positions in many professional organizations, such as New York Artists Equity Association, the National Society of Mural Painters, the Fine Arts Federation of New York, and the National Academy of Design.

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Tracy (Early Wild Style Letters), 1976. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.7.2

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Tracy (Early Wild Style Letters), 1976. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.7.2

The City Museum recently acquired 31 of his photographs through a generous gift from the Green Foundation. You can see all of them on the Collections Portal. And, through Labor Day, visit the Museum’s exhibition City as Canvas to see several of Stewart’s photographs on view.

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Jester I [Painted by Jester in 1972. Tags painted by Ace 137 and Cay 161 in 1971]. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.7.8

Jack Stewart (1926-2005). Jester I [Painted by Jester in 1972. Tags painted by Ace 137 and Cay 161 in 1971]. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.7.8

 Stewart’s papers are at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

Revolutionary sisters: Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin

If you’ve never heard of Victoria Woodhull or her younger sister Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin, you’re not alone. When I first came across them in the Museum’s Portrait Archive, I was immediately intrigued by the designation of “Brokers” on their portraits. The more I researched them, the more interested I became.  They challenged the staunchly Victorian society of 1870’s New York City by opening the first female stock brokerage firm, were the first women to start a newspaper (one dedicated to radical reform, no less), and launched the first presidential campaign for a woman. Welcome to the strange and incredible true lives of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. Woodhull (Broker). Museum of the city of New York.  F2012.58.41.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. Woodhull (Broker). Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.41.

The sisters had less than auspicious beginnings. Victoria Woodhull (neé Claflin) was born in 1838 in the wilds of Ohio and Tennie was born six years later. Their father was a one-eyed snake oil salesman and their mother a religious fanatic. The girls were soon part of their father’s schemes, earning money as child mediums, healers, and clairvoyants at tent revivals. For much of their childhood they were nomadic, staying in towns long enough to sell medicines and messages from the beyond, leaving before they could be chased out of town.

Unknown photographer. Miss Tennie C. Claflin (Broker). ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 41.366.53.

Unknown photographer. Miss Tennie C. Claflin (Broker). ca. 1875. Museum of the City of New York. 41.366.53.

For the next few decades, the sisters traveled difficult roads: bad marriages and a mentally handicapped child for Victoria, and the rough life of an itinerant faith healer for Tennie. And then one day, according to Victoria, the spirit of Demosthenes (the Greek orator, with whom she believed she communicated with regularly) sent her vision of a house on Great Jones Street in New York City where, the spirit promised her their lives would change for the better.

In 1868, the Claflin sisters invaded Manhattan. As promised, a house on Great Jones Street was procured and they immediately set to work taking over the city. Their first stop? Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt because, well, when you want to get to the top you need allies, especially ones who possess one of the biggest fortunes in the country.

William R. Howell (d. 1890). Cornelius Vanderbilt. ca. 1880-1887. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1269.

William R. Howell (d. 1890). Cornelius Vanderbilt. ca. 1880-1887. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1269.

The sisters met the Commodore at just the right time. He had always been a superstitious man who trusted mediums more than medical doctors. At this time he was still deep in mourning for his beloved first wife. Thankfully, Victoria and Tennie could help with that. Victoria began hosting séances to give Vanderbilt business tips while Tennie focused on magnetic healing. She was apparently so gifted that she became Vanderbilt’s lover. It was serious enough to warrant pet names: he called her ”my little sparrow”; she called him ”the old goat.” There were rumors that he asked her to marry him, but alas it can’t be proven. It was this connection, however, (and Vanderbilt’s finances) that led to the sisters’ next big step.

On February 5, 1870 a large, boisterous crowd gathered outside 44 Broad Street to witness a first in New York’s history: two women opening their very own stock brokerage firm, with the silent backing of Vanderbilt’s fortunes. Woodhull, Claflin & Co. opened at 10 A.M. precisely and was promptly swarmed by men wanting to see how the fairer sex handled business. Newspapers were filled with eyewitness accounts of the first day of business. (See the amazing variety of articles this produced here). But for the most part, the papers championed the “Bewitching Brokers” and “The Lady Bankers,” while calling attention to the regal beauty of Victoria and the feisty flirtiness of Tennie. With their studied social rebellions, short hair, and dresses short enough to show their boots, the sisters were treated as novelties by the press. However novel they were, they were also a success – they supposedly made $700,000 the first six weeks they were in business (a hefty $13 million in today’s dollars).

Miss Tennessee Claflin Receiving Orders for Stock Speculation, 1870. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

Miss Tennessee Claflin Receiving Orders for Stock Speculation, 1870. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

The press and public clamored for stories (positive and negative) about the nonconformist sisters, so for years they were never far from the headlines  and that suited them just fine…even when they were subjects of political cartoons like this.

From the New York  Evening Telegraph, February 18th, 1870. eprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

From the New York Evening Telegraph, February 18th, 1870. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York. F2011.16.7.

Keep in mind that this happened in the height of the Gilded Age, when a woman didn’t have a voice, property, or money independent of the men in her life, whether it was her husband, brother, or father. Thanks to a private door in the rear of the building leading to a women-only lounge, Woodhull, Claflin & Co. made it acceptable for women ranging from elite society dowagers to actresses to take control of their money. Most people would be content with this success, but the sisters weren’t satisfied; they had bigger plans. As Victoria later said: “We went unto Wall Street, not particularly because I wanted to be a broker…but because I wanted to plant the Flag of women’s rebellion in the center of the continent.”

Using the profits from Woodhull, Claflin & Co., they started their own weekly newspaper, the not so creatively named Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. It’s within these pages that we can see how modern their ideas were, and still are: sexual education for teenagers, eight hour workdays, fair wages, and gender equality are issues still being argued 144 years later!

Alll of this was a mere stepping stone for their next move. Stay tuned for the continuation of the saga of Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin.

 

Up on the roof, entertainment en plein air

Spring in New York City is glorious.  Allergy issues aside, the season of rebirth is especially welcome after this winter’s polar vortex shenanigans.  And though I celebrate the sunny days and refreshing rain of spring, I can see the heat waves forming on the horizon.  Summer is coming and with it a suffocating wall of humidity.

One of my best strategies to beat the heat is going to the theater. Be it a movie, musical, or play,  the cool darkness of a theater combined with a few hours of entertainment is my preferred place to be on an unbearably hot day.  A hundred years ago, this wasn’t so much the case.  Without air conditioning, the heat of the lights and the crush of fellow audience members could make visiting the theater  intolerable.  Not wishing to lose business during the summer months, theater owners came up with a new strategy: the roof!

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) [Roof Garden, Madison Square Garden Theatre.] ca. 1900.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Roof Garden, Madison Square Garden Theatre. ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.10866.

In the photograph above, a rooftop audience enjoys some light entertainment on the Madison Square Garden roof.  This MSG was located at 26th Street and Madison Avenue.  Designed by Stanford White, it was the second tallest building in the City at the time construction finished in 1890. Part of the fun for the audience was the chance to watch musical comedies and operettas from 32 stories off the ground. (Check out Mia’s early blog on the theater’s Diana statue.)

Further uptown at 44th and Broadway, the New York Theatre roof offered similar entertainment fare. The New York Theatre was originally built as the Olympia Theatre by  Oscar Hammerstein I (the grandfather of the Oscar Hammerstein from musical theater’s famous “Rodgers & Hammerstein”).

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Roof Garden, New York Theatre. ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.10880.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Roof Garden, New York Theatre. ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.10880.

Though a financial failure for Hammerstein I, the theater was only the second to be built in what would become the Times Square Theater District.  In 1895, the area was known as Longacre Square.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Roof Garden, New York Theatre. ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.10877.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Roof Garden, New York Theatre. ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.10877.

Hammerstein I’s second effort at extravagant outdoor entertainment was the  Paradise Roof Garden at 201 West 42nd Street.  Part enclosed space and part open air, the Garden spanned the roofs of  the Victoria Theatre and the Theatre Republic next door.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). [Roof Garden, Paradise atop Hammerstein's Victoria.] ca. 1904.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Roof Garden, Paradise atop Hammerstein’s Victoria.]ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.10856.

The Paradise Roof Garden was run by Hammerstein I’s son Willie.  As the noise of an ever expanding New York drifted upward, the vaudeville shows presented on the roof adapted to include wordless routines and pantomime.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) [Roof Garden, Paradise atop Hammerstein's Victoria.] ca. 1904.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Roof Garden, Paradise atop Hammerstein’s Victoria. ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.10860.

Just down the block at 260 West 42nd Street was the American Theatre.  With a seating capacity of over 2,000, the American Theatre was a  popular venue for melodrama and comedies.  The roof  offered escape from the crowds below.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.), American Roof Garden. 1898. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.17841.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). American Roof Garden. 1898. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.17841.

Beautiful lights lit up the roof and audiences could gather around small tables to chat or enjoy a variety of entertainments.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Roof Garden - American Roof Garden 1898 Eighth Ave at 42nd Street S.E. Cor. 1898. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.18358.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) Roof Garden – American Roof Garden 1898 Eighth Ave at 42nd Street S.E. Cor. 1898. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.18358.

Lighter fare was the entertainment of choice for rooftop theaters. Many of the auditoriums below were known for their comedic musicals and revues.  Rooftops offered even less serious spectacle with acrobatic troupes, vaudeville sketches, and variety acts requiring minimal staging.  It was just too darn hot to think of weightier things.  No doubt it’s the same impulse that guides the current blockbuster push for summer movies.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) [Roof Garden, Casino.] 1898. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.10850

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Roof Garden, Casino. 1898. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.10850.

Movie screenings were also a part of rooftop entertaining.  As the technology developed, projectors and screens were taken up top so that audiences could enjoy the silent films and a breeze.

Postcard. "Fred Winter's Summer Garden, Brooklyn, New York." Charles Stock & Co. Litho., ca. 1910.

Postcard. “Fred Winter’s Summer Garden, Brooklyn, New York.” Charles Stock & Co. Litho., ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York, X2011.34.3841.

Rooftop entertainment began a sharp decline in the 1920s, a decline that coincided with the rise of air conditioning installations in theaters of all types. While live performance on a rooftop may be a thing of the past, New Yorkers can still check out a movie thanks to the series set up by Rooftop Films.  You can also get your fix for outdoor theater this summer with the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions.  Another great way to beat the heat: visit a museum!

Mel Rosenthal in the South Bronx

Mel Rosenthal (born 1940) grew up in the South Bronx. When he returned to the area 20 years later, after receiving a Ph.D. in English Literature and American Studies from the University of Connecticut and a stint working as a medical photographer in Tanzania, he discovered an alien landscape of destruction and affliction. The burned-out buildings and rubble-strewn vacant lots have since become a visual shorthand for the urban decay of the 1970s and 1980s. Rosenthal began documenting the area and its residents, many of them native Puerto Ricans, creating a series of photographs that were eventually published in 2000 in the book, In the South Bronx of America.

Near Bathgate Avenue and East 173rd Street, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York 2013.12.40

Near Bathgate Avenue and East 173rd Street, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York 2013.12.40

In what is today roughly Morrisania and East Tremont, in the vicinity along Bathgate Avenue, Rosenthal photographed people who lived, played, loved each other, struggled, and sometimes protested in the midst of an environment that was elsewhere rendered in horrified, sensational headlines.

Among the Last Residents, Mother and daughter, East 173rd Street, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York, 2013.12.34

Among the Last Residents, Mother and daughter, East 173rd Street, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York, 2013.12.34

In 1976, Roger Starr, Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development, proposed a course of “planned shrinkage” that would allow the city to abandon what were considered blighted areas, especially in the South Bronx. This abandonment took the form of withdrawing public services such as libraries, public transportation, and, perhaps most notably, fire services. “The Bronx is burning” was a literal, not a figurative phrase.

Mikey at the bar, next to my photographs. I loved hanging out, having a beer, taking pictures, listening to what people said about the neighbor-hood. People were open and generous with me, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.14.

Mikey at the bar, next to my photographs. I loved hanging out, having a beer, taking pictures, listening to what people said about the neighbor-hood. People were open and generous with me, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.14.

The attitudes behind these policies were presaged by Starr in his 1966 book Urban Choices: the City and its Critics. In one passage he wrote, “Since they have no property, their only marketable asset is hardship…. [S]ome of the people displaced by urban renewal might just be exaggerating the sense of deprivation they feel over their ‘lost homes.'”

Teens clean up the rubble in order to create a neighborhood garden, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.25

Teens clean up the rubble in order to create a neighborhood garden, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.25

Starr and his supports believed that planned shrinkage would make way for future middle class housing, or, in the case of the neighborhood documented by Rosenthal, industrial development. And indeed, this area today is characterized by low-slung warehouses.

She had been left behind when her family and friends moved out of the neighborhood, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.8

She had been left behind when her family and friends moved out of the neighborhood, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.8

The city administrators’ beliefs about the people who lived in these areas and their “exaggerated” attachment to their communities are belied by Rosenthal’s photographs. The images capture the individuality and the humanity of those few earlier residents who remained, and those from a new generation who made their lives there.

Candido with neighborhood kids, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.27

Candido with neighborhood kids, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.27

His work, then, is not only a moving documentary to the resilience of people living in challenging circumstances, but also an activist’s critique of government policies that wrote off entire communities.

One of the high school students told me she was going to be a dental assistant. The other two said they wanted to be models, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.4

One of the high school students told me she was going to be a dental assistant. The other two said they wanted to be models, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.4

The Museum of the City of New York received 42 original prints from the Bronx series as a gift from Rosenthal’s wife, Roberta Perrymapp. We recently finished digitizing and cataloging them. View all 42 on the Museum’s Collections Portal, along with his later photographs of Arab Americans in New York City.

Mel Rosenthal in his old bedroom in the South Bronx, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.23

Mel Rosenthal in his old bedroom in the South Bronx, Mel Rosenthal, 1976-1982. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.12.23

 

Inside the Glamour – Baumgarten Interiors

For a span of a few weeks last winter, I lived in two worlds. My real world consisted of a Brooklyn apartment filled with IKEA furniture, roommates, and the usual litany of complaints about New York City living spaces. But for eight hours a day, five days a week, I was transported back to a time when homes wouldn’t be complete without their own ballrooms, libraries, conservatories, myriad guest bedrooms denoted by what color the walls were painted and, well… you get the idea.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. E. F. Hutton. Drawing room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.391A.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. E. F. Hutton. Drawing room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.391A.

The six unbound albums that are loosely referred to as the Baumgarten Interiors, given to the City Museum by the antiquarian taste-maker J. A. Lloyd Hyde in 1935, show some of New York City’s most elaborately decorated homes and offices. The City Museum’s records on this gift don’t offer much in the way of details, but we have pieced together what ties all of these lavish interiors together: they were the work of William Baumgarten and his eponymous interior design company, William Baumgarten & Co. The photographs were taken in the early years of the 20th century and compiled into albums at a later date. Although Baumgarten’s clients had recognizable names such as Astor, Rothschild, and Juilliard,  his own name has faded from public memory.

William Baumgarten was a taste-maker in his own right. Originally a cabinetmaker, after emigrating from Germany in 1865 he began working for the Herter Brothers, very posh interior decorators and cabinet makers. He eventually took over the business and that’s where things get interesting. At the time, interior decorators like Stanford White (of McKim, Mead and White architectural firm fame) would travel to Europe looking for relics in good conditions to decorate the houses of the wealthy. Among the most popular items were tapestries, but there was that annoying fact of a limited supply and growing demand. To combat that, in 1893 Baumgarten created the first tapestry workshop in America; it was in the Bronx and employed 80 people who made high quality copies of the finest 18th and 19th century tapestries.  So it is not surprising to see how prominently displayed tapestries in these pictures.

After looking at a thousand images, I began to see patterns and become intimately acquainted with the au courant interior trends of the early 20th century. I’ve highlighted a few of them, just in case you need decorating tips for your next apartment.

Obviously tapestries work in both a home and an office setting…the more the better.

Unknown photographer. [William C. Whitney Residence. 68th St. & 5th Ave., N.Y.C. Entrance hall.] ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.71A

Unknown photographer. [William C. Whitney Residence. 68th St. & 5th Ave., N.Y.C. Entrance hall.] ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.71A.

Unknown photographer. Mr. F. W. Woolworth's private office, Woolworth Building, N.Y.C.. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.10A

Unknown photographer. Mr. F. W. Woolworth’s private office, Woolworth Building, N.Y.C.. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.10A

Animal hides were another must have.

Unknown photographer. Residence of Mrs. David Heller, 4 East 82nd St., N.Y.C. Music room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York.  X2013.139.353B.

Unknown photographer. Residence of Mrs. David Heller, 4 East 82nd St., N.Y.C. Music room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.353B.

Unknown photographer. H. T. Parson, Esq., Solarium view looking south. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.124B.

What’s intriguing is to see how the idea of home has shifted over the decades; these homes are not designed for comfort, but rather a statement of wealth and power. (Remember how much a mansion and costume ball helped cement the Vanderbilts into New York City society?)

Unknown photographer. John Jacob Astor Residence, #840 Fifth Avenue. Drawing room. ca. 1915-1930. museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.90B.

Unknown photographer. John Jacob Astor Residence, #840 Fifth Avenue. Drawing room. ca. 1915-1930. museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.90B.

Because really, who doesn’t need a pipe organ in the entrance hall?

Unknown photographer. Mrs. W. H. Taylor's Apartment 12 W. 96th Street. Entrance hall. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.375B.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. W. H. Taylor’s Apartment 12 W. 96th Street. Entrance hall. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.375B.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. E. F. Hutton. Library. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.387A.

Unknown photographer. Mrs. E. F. Hutton. Library. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.387A.

Unknown photographer. H. T. Parson, Esq., Conservatory off dining room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City og New York. X2013.139.122

Unknown photographer. H. T. Parson, Esq., Conservatory off dining room. ca. 1915-1930. Museum of the City of New York. X2013.139.122

Please click here to see more images of the glamorous worlds William Baumgarten created in the houses of the elite of New York City and imagine yourself having tea in the conservatory and wiling away the afternoon in your private gallery.

 

William Auerbach-Levy, Artist and Neighborhood Preservationist

William Auerbach-Levy was born in 1889 in Brest-Litovsk, then part of the Russian Empire. He immigrated with his parents to the United States around 1894 and grew up on the Lower East Side. He began drawing at a young age and eventually became renowned for caricature. He executed serious illustrations with equal skill, however, as shown below on the cover of the 1916 annual report of the Educational Alliance.

Cover of the 1916 annual report of the Educational Alliance by William Auerbach-Levy.

Cover of the 1916 annual report of the Educational Alliance. Illustration by William Auerbach-Levy.

Auerbach-Levy’s artistic abilities enabled him to effectively parody public figures, and his caricatures appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, the New York Post, Collier’s, and Esquire, to name a few. He also authored several newspaper articles and a book entitled Is That Me? to satisfy public interest in his profession. In the article, “A Caricaturist Snitches on His Victims – How Celebrities Act When Impaled on an Artist’s Pencil,” published in the October 18, 1925 issue of New York World, he wrote of the character actress Helen Westley: “When I told Helen Westley that I had come to do a caricature she said, ‘Of course it would be a caricature – aren’t you afraid you’ll forget how to make a straight drawing? Well, go ahead and be as wicked as you like. I’m used to it.'”

William Auerbach-Levy. Helen Westley. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.974

William Auerbach-Levy (1889-1964). [Helen Westley.] 1925. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.974

In the same article, Auerbach-Levy recounted his experience sketching Lionel Barrymore as he applied makeup backstage for “The Piker”. Barrymore saw the sketch right before the curtain went up. “‘Pretty good if you fix-” The curtain was going up. Of course I didn’t ‘fix’ it, whatever it was – I’ve learned that the subject’s criticism of his own caricature may safely be ignored.”

William Auerbach-Levy. Lionel Barrymore. ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.1670

William Auerbach-Levy. [Lionel Barrymore.] ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.1670

Auerbach-Levy’s article “Something About Caricature” appeared in the September 1933 issue of journal New Hope. He recalled in 1927 sketching producer Jed Harris as he worked with director George Abbott on the production “Coquette”.

Something About Caricature

“Something About Caricature” by William Auerbach-Levy. Published in New Hope Vol. I No. II, September 1933.

“I never saw a man so distressed as Harris when he finally looked over my sketches. Then with deadly earnestness he said, ‘You can’t print that in your paper!'” But as Auerbach-Levy later revealed to journalist Ernest Watson in “The Caricatures of William Auerbach-Levy,” printed in the April 1938 issue of Art Instruction: “Shortly after, I saw Jed again. He said, ‘Bill, that was a marvelous drawing of me! Everybody was crazy about it – you must have been inspired – don’t forget I’m buying the original.’ And, thereafter, it hung framed on his wall.”

William Auerbach-Levy. Jed Harris. ca. 1925. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.715

William Auerbach-Levy. [Jed Harris.] ca. 1927. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.715

Harris was not the only person so enamored of his caricature that he requested to buy it outright from Auerbach-Levy. The journalist H. L. Mencken took to his caricature and wrote in a letter to Auerbach-Levy: “I like the caricature very much. It is grotesque and yet it does justice to my underlying beauty. Needless to say, I’ll be delighted to have the original, if it still exists.”

William Auerbach-Levy. H. L. Mencken. ca. 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.836

William Auerbach-Levy. [H. L. Mencken.] 1929. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.836

Letter from H. L. Mencken to William-Auerbach Levy, June 16, 1929. Museum of the City of New York. William Auerbach-Levy archives.

Letter from H. L. Mencken to William-Auerbach Levy, June 16, 1929.

Auerbach-Levy’s talents became so well-known, he was even commended in a New York Times article that had nothing to do with him. Critic Alexander Woollcott praised the performance of entertainer Cecilia Loftus in the April 10, 1938 article “Cissie Loftus – As Ever”: “You see most of what are palmed off on us as imitations are doubly that. They are really imitations of imitations. The true gift of caricature is rare. But once some one born with it – a Max Beerbohm, let us say, or a Frueh or an Auerbach-Levy….”

Jimmy Durante was also impressed with the artist when he went to Auerbach-Levy’s studio in Washington Square, as told in the August 6, 1942 article “This Artist Enjoys a Triple Career” that appeared in The Villager.

William Auerbach-Levy. Jimmy Durante. 1925-1950. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.145

William Auerbach-Levy. [Jimmy Durante.] 1925-1950. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.145

“As Jimmie walked through the door, Mr. Levy saw just the amusing angle he had hoped to catch and jotted it down before the unsuspecting subject knew what was happening.

‘What do you want me to do?’ queried Jimmie, ready to pose.

‘Nothing,’ replied Mr. Levy. ‘It’s done.’

‘I knew I was easy to caricature,’ exclaimed the gentleman with the nose, ‘but not so easy as all that.'”

William Auerbach-Levy. Jimmy Durante. 1945-1964. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.659

William Auerbach-Levy. [Jimmy Durante.] 1945-1964. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.659

Lucas-Pritchard and Lucas-Monroe. Judy Sinclair and Jimmy Durante at a party for "Top Banana". 1951. Museum of the City of New York. 80.104.1.2506

Lucas-Pritchard and Lucas-Monroe. [Judy Sinclair and Jimmy Durante at a party for "Top Banana".] 1951. Museum of the City of New York. 80.104.1.2506

Auerbach-Levy even caricatured himself.

William Auerbach-Levy (1889-1964). William-Auerbach Levy. 1920-1950. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.1083

William Auerbach-Levy (1889-1964). [William-Auerbach Levy.] 1920-1950. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.1083

Auerbach-Levy accomplished much of his work at the aforementioned studio at 46 Washington Square South. He loved the studio and the surrounding Greenwich Village neighborhood so much, he created a scrapbook, now at the Museum. A cutout quote from the artist himself adorns the first page of the scrapbook: “The reason I like the Village better than any other part of New York is that here you can step out of your door and see the world. Life is here in all its manifestations. You can see more variety in the Village in five minutes than you can on a tour of the rest of the city. For an artist, that is very important.”

The second page of the scrapbook includes a reproduction of an oil painting produced around 1934 by Auerbach-Levy depicting his impression of Greenwich Village in winter.

Winter in Greenwich Village. Reproduction

Reproduction of oil painting by William Auerbach-Levy depicting Greenwich Village in the winter.

The artist Edward C. Caswell drew Auerbach-Levy’s studio and garden, and the drawings were printed in the Greenwich Village publication The Villager. Auerbach-Levy cut out the drawings from the newspaper and added them to his scrapbook.

Reproduction of Edward C. Caswell's drawing of William Auerbach-Levy's studio. Printed in The Villager, .

Reproduction of Edward C. Caswell’s drawing of William Auerbach-Levy’s studio. Printed in The Villager, February 26, 1941.

 

Reproduction of Edward C. Caswell's drawing of William Auerbach-Levy's garden. Printed in The Villager, September 16, 1943.

Reproduction of Edward C. Caswell’s drawing of William Auerbach-Levy’s garden. Printed in The Villager, September 28, 1939.

When Auerbach-Levy leased the studio in 1929, the entire 40 Washington Square block was owned by Albert Strunsky. In the early 1940s, Columbia University bought the block. In 1947, Columbia notified tenants on the block that their leases would not be renewed. Columbia, in turn, sold the block to NYU, which planned to demolish the buildings occupying the space between Sullivan and Macdougal Streets and Washington Square South and West Third Street to make room for a new law school. In addition to Auerbach-Levy, filmmaker Joris Ivens, artists Jacques Lipschitz and Kyohei Inukai, and pianist Celia Saloman would be among the 300-plus tenants to be displaced under the plan. The struggle between the competing interests of Greenwich Village artists and the university was faithfully captured by Auerbach-Levy in his scrapbook.

Caption

Houses scheduled to make way for a school. Printed in The Villager, February 17, 1949.

Not only did Auerbach-Levy document NYU’s expansion into Greenwich Village and the neighborhood’s attempts to stop it, he joined in the fight. As recounted in the June 16, 1949 issue of The Villager, “Skits Poke Fun At Tenants, Officials”: “Representatives of press and radio were honored guests Monday night, June 6, at a rollicking party in the studios of Beatrice Worthington and Ines Carillo, Washington Sq. S… The highlight of the evening was ‘a one shot, first and last showing’ of three skits entitled ‘The Follies of Washington Sq.'” The skits were written by Harold M. Fleming and produced by other soon-to-be-displaced tenants. Auerbach-Levy provided on-the-spot caricatures of people in the audience.

Caption

Spoofing NYU Is Serious Business for Washington Square Residents — and Others. By Haile Hendrix. Printed in Caricature, July 1949.

Despite the efforts of Auerbach-Levy and his neighbors, NYU won out. But Russell D. Niles, Dean of the law school, offered to help the artists locate other places to live and work. With help from NYU, Auerbach-Levy moved to 28 East Ninth Street in late 1949 or early 1950. Auerbach-Levy was also asked by NYU to do a caricature of Niles, which he provided. In addition, the university purchased a caricature of the United States Supreme Court and hung it in the Law Center’s student lounge. Auerbach-Levy even attended the dedication of Arthur T. Vanderbilt Hall, New York University Law Center in September 1951 and remarked to the New York Times that NYU had done “a magnificent job“.

Upon Auerbach-Levy’s death in 1964, the artist’s estate bequeathed 3,326 drawings to the Museum. We’ve recently digitized the work and have cataloged and uploaded about half of these so far to the Museum’s Collections Portal. Click here to view the finding aid for the collection, and here to see more Auerbach-Levy artwork online.

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.

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.