Tag Archives: Photography

Chantecler, a Barnyard Fantasy

"Chantecler" theater still, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.65.

“Chantecler” theater still, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.65.

While digitizing the vast collection of over 30,000 photographs that make up the theatre production files at the Museum of the City of New York, a project generously funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, there oftentimes come to light incredible images that are unusual and dream-like, seemingly attached to a time and space very distant from a typical 21st century production. One example is the photographs by White Studios of the 1911 Broadway production of Chantecler, a Verse Play in Four Acts, by French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand, adapted by Louis N. Parker. Rostrand had dealt with 10 years of writer’s block before writing the script and the production was particularly contentious: the public was shocked that such an elaborate production featured chickens; the original Paris production was postponed due to a great flood; and the American version was surrounded in controversy over the casting of a woman (Maude Adams) as the male protagonist.

Act 4 of "Chantecler" - "In the Heart of a Wood", 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.53.

Act 4 of “Chantecler” – “In the Heart of a Wood”, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.53.

The plot centers around the existential struggle of the rooster Chantecler (meaning ‘clear singing’), who is convinced that his crowing is solely responsible for the sun rising. There is much conflict among the barnyard animals:  jealousy, deception, denial of the possibility Chantecler could emit a call so beautiful it could command daylight. Chantecler defends his belief in his life-summoning art, even placing its importance above the affections of a beautiful young pheasant (who eventually learns to accept his dedication to deliver the dawn after he nearly gives his life for it).  Although it is revealed that the sun does rise regardless,  Chantecler maintains his conviction that it is his duty to signal the new day to every creature and to call attention to the radiant rays of light that shield the farm’s inhabitants from birds that prey in the darkness.

"Chantecler" theater still, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.73.

“Chantecler” theater still, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.73.

Although peculiar in its approach and aesthetic, Chantecler was unanimously heralded as a great work of philosophy and artistic accomplishment. Most of the tickets were sold in advance, due to the public anticipation as to whether Maude Adams could take on such a symbolic masculine role. The casting was seen as a publicity stunt by legendary producer Charles Frohman, who preferred Adams in gender-atypical roles, previously casting her in 1905 as Peter Pan. Chantecler premiered at the Knickerbocker Theater (Broadway and 38th Street), January 23, 1911. “The demand for seats was unprecedented. A line began to form at four o’clock in the afternoon preceding the day the sale opened. Within twenty-four hours after the window was raised at the box-office as high as $200 was offered in vain for a seat on the opening night.” (1) The play ran four months with nearly 100 performances, and subsequently toured more than 60 cities.

Maude Adams in the title role of "Chantecler", 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.52.

Maude Adams in the title role of “Chantecler”, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.52.

“To Miss Adams’s mind the most violent misconception of ‘Chantecler’ is the idea that the chief character should be absolutely masculine…The whole play, in a nutshell, to her way of thinking, is the story of an idealist going forth into the world and getting the edges rubbed off his ideals by the stern realities of life. But she believes that the cock’s steadfastness to these ideas, even when he learns that his part in the scheme of things is not as important as he thought it was is the most lasting lesson in the play, sending men and women out of the theatre determined to do their level best in their various undertakings.” (2)

"Chantecler" theater still, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.58.

“Chantecler” theater still, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.58.

It was the combination of pure spectacle with the humbling nature of the pastoral scene that made Chantecler such a unique phenomenon. The passions and aspirations of the ego in search of artistic expression and authenticity were reflected by literally stripping the stage of the human presence.

A review in the Indianapolis Star describes the impact of the unusual use of scale in the production:

“Chantecler…doesn’t look to most spectators more than twice the size of a real rooster and not more than half the height of Maude Adams. The transient effect is produced by an enlargement of the inanimate objects in sight…a haystack in the background is a mountain; a wheelbarrow fills the space of an oxcart…. That method of belittling the beasts and birds is feasible throughout, as no glimpse of a human figure is given in he whole play. A usual oak in a forest is a thick at the trunk of a California wonder tree.” (3)

"Chantecler" theater still, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.60.

“Chantecler” theater still, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.60.

Upon observing the bewildering beauty of the production photos, it should be  no surprise that producer Frohman assembled a production design team of extraordinary ingenuity. Documents from the stage manager’s manual depict the cutting edge technology used to engineer the production. Remember, electric (tungsten) stage lights had only recently been invented!

Stage equipment for "Chantecler", 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.77.

Stage equipment for “Chantecler”, 1911. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 48.367.77.

Much of Chantecler’s stagecraft was developed by J.M. Hewlett, A.T. Hewlett, and Charles Basing under the direction of W.H. Gilmore. J.M. Hewlett (formally of McKim, Mead & White and founder of Lord and Hewlett) is perhaps best  known for designing notable buildings such as the Brooklyn Masonic Temple (1907) and Brooklyn Hospital (1920), to name a few. As a team, Hewlett and Basing were responsible for the design and execution of the infamous celestial ceiling in Grand Central Station, as well as many other important public works, including the eight historical murals at the Bank of New York and Trust Company building.

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“Chantecler” Press Clipping, 1911, From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

A description under a press photo (above) describes the way the special effects were achieved:

“Viewed from the auditorium this is a stage setting done in the regular way. It shows a superb and realistic forest full of color and atmosphere. In reality, however, there is no color there at all except what is thrown on from colored lights. The trees are only pieces of white gauze and the back drop, with its apparent elaborate distant perspective, only a plain black curtain.”

Below, a few documents from behind the scenes reveal  the technical skill ‘behind the curtain’ that went into producing this microcosmic wonder:

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“Chantecler” Stage Manager’s Script, Act 1. 1911, From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

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“Chantecler” Stage Manager’s Script, Act 1, Positions of Lights. 1911, From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

To read the original synopsis of the Chantecler play, view the  story card that was handed out to Knickerbocker Theatre audiences:

Chantecler_Museum_of_the_City_Of_New_York_19

“Chantecler” Knickerbocker Theatre Play Synopsis (recto). 1911, From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

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“Chantecler” Knickerbocker Theatre Play Synopsis (verso). 1911, From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York.

Click here to explore even more images of Chantecler. Click here to see all of the Broadway production photographs digitized to date under the IMLS grant.

(1) Frohman, Dainel and Marcosson, Issac F.,  Charles Frohman: Manager and Man, 1916.

(2) Fitzgerald, J.A., Chantecler Comes, Crows, and Conquers, Maryland Evening Post, Feb. 2, 1911

(3) Fyles, Franklin, Chantecler, Not only a Novelty in Gotham, Indianapolis Star, Jan. 29, 1911.

 

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.

The Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic

It’s a sweltering July evening in 1915 and the lights have just come up after the finale of a Ziegfeld Follies show at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street. You dread walking out into the muggy night and long for a cool escape. But you’re in luck tonight because it’s the premiere of Flo Ziegfeld Jr.’s new revue, the Danse de Follies! You take the elevator from the theatre lobby up to the rooftop garden (you’ve heard it called “the meeting place of the world”) and as the doors open you are met with dancing and the sound of champagne being uncorked. The show starts at midnight and you have work in the morning, but a late night of revelry to escape the stuffy New York summer seems like a small price to pay for the exhaustion of tomorrow.

214 West 42nd Street. New Amsterdam Theatre, ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.195.

214 West 42nd Street. New Amsterdam Theatre, ca. 1900. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.195.

Earlier that year, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., tired of seeing his audiences leave after performances of the Ziegfeld Follies to spend money at other people’s nightclubs, staged a second late-night revue in the New Amsterdam Theatre’s underused 680 seat roof-top level with tables, complete with box seats, and a balcony. Ziegfeld mechanized the stage so that it rolled back to reveal a dance floor, and installed a glass walkway that would allow chorus girls to dance right above the customers seated below. Later called the Midnight Frolic, the show was a bit more risqué than the Follies. The girls shimmying down the glass walkway above the audience were reportedly cautioned to wear bloomers but oftentimes the rule wasn’t followed very closely. Audience members were asked to vote for the young lady he or she considered the most beautiful and to state why on cards handed out by the usher. The young lady receiving the most votes during the run of that Frolic series had her salary doubled. One of the audience favorites was the “balloon girls,” who encouraged male patrons to use their cigars to pop the balloons covering the majority of their costumes.

Sybil Carmen in the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, 1915. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 59.271.16.

Sybil Carmen in the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, 1915. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 59.271.16.

To keep out the rougher elements, Ziegfeld charged a hefty $5.00 cover (roughly $117 today) on top of the ticket price – first row seats went for $3 (approximately $55 today), while orchestra seats went for $2.50 (about $46). Upper class theatre-goers were delighted with the Midnight Frolic’s party-like atmosphere, and the revue became an annual event after its premiere in 1915. Insisting that theater-goers would have sore hands after applauding so much, Ziegfeld provided little wooden hammers at Frolic tables, so audiences could bang out their appreciation.

Souvenir - wooden applause hammer from Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic atop New Amsterdam Theatre, ca. 1916. Museum of the City of New York, 62.215.53.

Souvenir – wooden applause hammer from Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic atop New Amsterdam Theatre, ca. 1916. Museum of the City of New York, 62.215.53.

The Midnight Frolic often received rave reviews from the New York Times: “The latest edition of Florenz Ziegfeld’s ‘Midnight Frolic,’ which had its first presentation Monday midnight before an audience that embraced all who live and move and have their being in Broadway, out-Ziegfelds all its predecessors. It is like the others only more so. It is a Ziegfeld-Urban-Wayburn show of beautiful women, frocks and tableaux designed for the business man who is too tired to go home after the play… One might search the world and not find anything quite as unique or lavish as this midnight revue.”

The show was broken up into different comedy, singing, and dancing acts featuring stars like Frances White, Teddy Gerard, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, and W.C. Fields.

Stage ensemble from the Midnight Frolic with Will Rogers (center), 1917. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 74.92.51.

Stage ensemble from the Midnight Frolic with Will Rogers (center), 1917. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 74.92.51.

Frances White in the Midnight Frolic, 1917. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 74.92.31.

Frances White in the Midnight Frolic, 1917. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 74.92.31.

During the twenty-five minute intermission between the acts, audience members were welcome to dance, drink, and dine. For .75 cents to $1.00 (from $17-$23 today) guests could partake in a cold beer or soda, and for those willing to pay $2.75 ($64 today) there were small bottles of champagne readily available. The Ziegfeld kitchens were most known for their steak dinners, but also popular was Beluga caviar for $2.00 a serving ($47).

There was no limit to the extravagance of the Midnight Frolic, even after the US entered World War I. The New York Times reported in 1917 that, “For fear some one will think that he has adopted a policy of retrenchment because of the war Mr. Ziegfeld calls attention to one novelty, a chiffon scene in which the chiffon alone cost $3,000. He also wishes to state that the cost of production approximated $100,000.”

Teddy Gerard in the Midnight Frolic, 1917. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 62.100.211.

Teddy Gerard in the Midnight Frolic, 1917. From the Theater Collection. Museum of the City of New York, 62.100.211.

The club stayed open year-round for seven years and while World War I couldn’t stop the Midnight Frolic, Prohibition was ultimately what led Ziegfeld to end the show in 1922. He commented on this to the New York Times in 1921: “The best class of people from all over the world have been in the habit of coming up on the roof … and when they are subjected to the humiliation of having policemen stand by their tables and watch what they are drinking, then I do not care to keep open any longer… But occasionally some of my patrons have brought liquor of their own, and recently two men were arrested on the roof. When these things can happen I think it is time to close.”

That first midnight performance back in 1915 closes to a sea of hammers and cheers. You shuffle out with the crowd, your feet sore from dancing and the bright white lights of Broadway shining on your face. You feel tired, but you know there will be no way for you to fall asleep now after seeing the sensation of Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic.

Be sure to keep an eye out for photos like these and more with the IMLS Broadway Production Files digitization project.

Prepping the girls for “As the Girls Go”

Since October the Theater department has been busy preparing 30,000 images of theatrical productions for digitization and cataloging. Images will eventually be made available on our Collections Portal thanks to the support of a Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  In the process of getting objects ready for digitization, our archival intern came across these rough proofs and final images prepared by the Lucas-Monroe studio for the musical As the Girls Go.  The photos offer a glimpse at photo manipulation  before the digital era.

Lucas-Monore [Scene from As the Girls Go] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.172

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Scene from As the Girls Go] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.172

As the Girls Go opened in 1948 at the Winter Garden Theatre, but it was set five years in the future, with the inauguration of America’s first female president. Opponents of the President attempt to drum up scandal by throwing a bevy of beautiful women into the path of her husband, played by vaudeville comedian Bobby Clark.  Lucas-Monroe put out a series of publicity shots featuring the tempting beauties.

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Unidentified actress preparing for photo shoot] 1948. 80.103.190

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Unidentified actress preparing for photo shoot] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.190

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Unidentified showgirl and with possibly Edward Thayer Monroe] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.189.

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Unidentified showgirl with photographer, possibly Edward Thayer Monroe] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.189.

The Lucas-Monroe studio began as Lucas-Pritchard in the mid-1930s. Photographer George W. Lucas and business manager Irving Pritchard formed a partnership that was later joined by portrait photographer Edward Thayer Monroe. The studio became known as Lucas-Monroe and captured hundreds of Broadway productions  until the company was dissolved in 1952. Lucas actually died ten years before, but Monroe was able to carry on the business successfully. (For more biographical information visit the excellent site on early Broadway photographers created by Dr. David S. Shields and hosted by the University of South Carolina.)

Of course, what beauty couldn’t use a little help here and there? Print alterations and image manipulations were standard practice in 1948.  See the rough proof below and the identified “problem” areas.

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Rough proof of unidentified showgirl from As the Girls Go] 1948. 80.103.192

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Rough proof of unidentified showgirl from As the Girls Go] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.192

The finished proof follows, and it is easy to see how the woman’s upper right arm was slimmed down, the sides of her torso sliced, and hair frizzies minimized.

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Unidentified showgirl from As the Girls Go] 1948. 80.103.191

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Unidentified showgirl from As the Girls Go] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.191

Even famed beauty and socialite Gregg Sherwood was unable to escape critique.

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Gregg Sherwood from As the Girls Go] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.194.

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Gregg Sherwood from As the Girls Go] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.194.

Her jacket is smoothed out, waist shaved, and anything close to tired eliminated from her face. Even the toe of her shoe was altered.

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Gregg Sherwood from As the Girls Go] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.193.

Lucas-Monroe Studio. [Gregg Sherwood from As the Girls Go] 1948. Museum of the City of New York. 80.103.193.

Alterations could be made a number of ways including re-touching with paint, ink, or airbrush, and manipulation of prints and negatives in the dark room. Digital camera technology and programs like Photoshop have made photo manipulation  infinitely easier and more prevalent.  So prevalent, in fact, that the debate on image alteration has been going strong for several years. Just last month a GIF of Jennifer Lawrence’s 2011 Flare cover surfaced online showing how much of the actress was cropped, cut, and shifted for the magazine’s final publication. The techniques for altering a model’s image have come a long way since As the Girls Go opened in 1948, but the practice hasn’t changed much and we have yet to elect a female President.

Stay tuned for more updates as we prepare, digitize, and catalog a wealth of images from the plays and musicals of the New York stage.

The Great Bygone Museum Tour

Museums of New York, July 9, 1939

Museums of New York, [Museum Map and Guide], July 9, 1939, Museum of the City of New York, 98.52.15

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Verso of ticket to the National Academy of Design’s 22nd Annual Exhibit, 1917, Museum of the City of New York, 38.237.1

Ladies and Gentleman! Step this way! My dear blog readers, please accompany me on a tour to discover the unique and marvelous history of museums in New York City.  Be sure to leave your parasols and walking sticks with the attendant. We will be traveling through Scudder’s cabinets of wonder, to see the Great Ajeeb, and even into the apartment of the fabulous Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her confidant Juliana Force. My cherished, curious guests! I know you will be delighted to hear that there is a reception at the conclusion of our expedition.

Scudder's American Museum

Scudder’s American Museum, 1825, Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1895

Let me first lure you to the proprietorship of former sailor Mr. John Scudder, the preeminent naturalist, taxidermist, and scholar of the bizarre and beautiful. He had gallantly taken up the reins of the “American Museum” initially established by Tammany Hall for their very own members in 1791.  (Among other things, the collection included guillotines used during the French Revolution for the demonstration of decapitation on wax models.) Renamed Scudder’s American Museum, it was relocated by the City rent-free to the second floor of New York’s first almshouse in City Hall Park in 1812. Working late? No worries, Scudder’s stayed open by candlelight until 9pm several days a week. Visitors could take in the aroma of live mud turtles and other exotic species and then wander down the hall to rest their eyes on the bed linens of Mary, Queen of Scots. There were over 150,000 objects in Scudder’s domain, not to mention a bona fide zoo and performance hall.

New York Historical Society, ca. 1845, George P. Hall and Son,  Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1748

New York Historical Society, ca. 1845, George P. Hall and Son, Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1748

Another resident of a former almshouse in City Hall Park (a center for museums in the mid-19th century) was the New~York Historical Society, established in  1804. Its Board was a preeminent  assemblage of notables, socialites, and politicians whose vigorous collecting contributed to building a valuable repository of many of the United State’s most treasured documents and works of art. To your left you will see the Historical Society in its later quarters uptown on 11th Street and Second Avenue (constructed in 1857) which would remain its home until 1908.

Peale's Museum

Peale’s Museum, 1825, Museum of the City of New York, 29.100.1863

Next stop: 252 Broadway, Mr. Rubens Peale’s Museum (which opened on the same day as the Erie Canal, October 26, 1825). Peale was the direct competitor of our dear Scudder and son of the great Charles Wilson Peale, founder of the Philadelphia Museum. Artist and eccentric, Rubens Peale assembled four floors of paintings, natural wonders, and slightly unnatural wonders (just a few two-headed sheep here and there), cosmoramas (enormous panoramas of exotic locales, one of which is currently on display in the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing), and wax figure displays. Peale specialized in live entertainment and lectures, with subjects ranging from animal magnetism to séances. This was not to say New York’s Peale establishment was pure frivolity and entertainment; these displays and presentations stemmed from a Linnean preservationist’s ardor for the natural world and was in spirit with popular science at that time.

Sleighing in New York

Thomas Benecke, Sleighing in New York, 1855, Museum of the City of New York, 45.271.1

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Ticket to Barnum’s American Museum, 1867, Museum of the City of New York, 10.43.29.40

Let us now journey three blocks through City Hall Park to Broadway and Ann Street in the year 1841. It seems the colossus otherwise known as P.T.Barnum’s American Museum has engulfed both Scudder’s and Peale’s treasures, amassing both collections under one frenzied roof. Barnum was a master marketer both visually and audibly; his PR consisted of a live band playing on the balcony and the most fantastic typography ever to grace the wheat paste poster. The Museum literally screams at you to come in! Barnum acquired ownership of Peale’s building and kept it running just for contrast against his booming establishment of encyclopedic wonders, which at its peak was open 15 hours a day.  See here the “million curiosities”: live freak shows, bizarre and colorful animals (including “sassy monkeys”), and throngs of specimens in outrageous ‘educational’ display. Peale’s American Museum appeared modest and pedantic in comparison.

[Ruins of Barnum's Museum.]

Ruins of Barnum’s Museum, ca. 1865, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.759

Time to lower our hats and journey past dear Barnum’s in 1865, the year of the great furnace fire that shot through from the basement and took the lives of all its living animals in the most horrific spectacle of all.  The New York Times lamented the end of an incomparable collection.  “No public institution in the country pretended even to rival the geological collection of the museum either in extent or value…. Birds of rarest plumage, fish of most exquisite tint, animals peculiar to every section, minerals characteristic of every region, and peculiarities of all portions of the earth, costly, beautiful curious and strange, were crowded on the dusty shelves of room after room, where they attracted the earnest attention and studious regard of the scholar and the connoisseur.” After the fire, Barnum’s would continue on as a side-show museum and move to a more mobile platform as a traveling circus.
Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street.

Byron Company, Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street, ca. 1899, Museum of the City of New York, 41.420.413

Ok, enough with the depressing part of the tour. What is this here? A battleship wedged between two buildings on 23rd street?  No need to duck the cannon fire, this is the Eden Museé, an astounding palace of wax figures and automata. Their oily waxen faces were not conversational, but they were considered to be excellent listeners. Eden opened its doors in 1884 and was considered a premier establishment for family entertainment, though its reputation was somewhat diluted when it came to the basement “Crypt” (a motley assortment of execution scenes). A  New York Times review reported it “incomplete,” having only “four or five tableaus.”

Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street.

Byron Company, Eden Musee, 59 West 23rd Street, ca. 1907, Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.15517

Meet the Mysterious Ajeeb. He was the preeminent resident and chess champion at the Eden Museé. The wise Ageeb has played chess with Sarah Bernhardt, Edgar Allan Poe, and other notables, including celebrity chess players. Do you dare to challenge him? Be careful not to shake his clockwork hand upon defeat, you may find the warm grasp of his operator Mr. Charles Edward Hooper, who worked inside Ajeeb, quite unsettling.

Museum of Safety Appliances.

Byron Company, Museum of Safety Appliances, 1908, Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.7045

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The American Museum of Safety Exposition Booklet, ca. 1914, Museum of the City of New York, 81.146B.3

The Museum of Safety, located in the Engineering Societies’ Building on 29 West 39th Street focused on a different kind of conservation than that of artworks and artifacts. The ‘conservation of human life’ was the foremost concern. No exotic fantasies here, only the stark realities of industrial injury. As accident prevention became a big industry, the exhibitions not only educated workers, but also served as advertisements for safety equipment. The transition into an electrified city of telephone lines and automobiles was not met without some unintended tragedy for those uneducated in the dangers these modern wonders .

[American Museum of Natural History.]

Harroun & Bierstadt, American Museum of Natural History, ca. 1877, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.1234

Now we proceed uptown to visit some of the city’s most beloved and ever-thriving institutions in their most rudimentary state. The 1870s was a golden era for museology in New York City. Philanthropists of the Gilded Age bequeathed great sums to create institutions that would hold their own against European models. Virtually unrecognizable, this view of The American Museum of Natural History (above) depicts the original Victorian Gothic building designed by J. Wrey Mould and built between 1874-1877. At this time the surrounding Central Park looks more like an industrial wasteland than the current wooded landscape and austere skyline, since it was still mostly un-developed farmland.

[Obelisk with Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

Adolph Wittemann, Obelisk with Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1890, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.1512

Here is an early incarnation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although the grid system existed then, many roads remained unpaved and the landscape was largely rural. (Untapped Cities does an excellent job of  describing the secret history of the Met’s architecture). The Egyptian government gifted the obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle, in 1881 and shipped it from Alexandria on the Steamship Dessoug. There was a grand Masonic ceremony attended by over 9,000 Masons and 50,000 spectators to celebrate the installation.

Buildings, Brooklyn Children's Museum, Brooklyn Ave. & Park Plac

Byron Company, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Ave. & Park Place, 1924, Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.16737

Please devote a few brief moments to pay homage to this building, known once as the Adams House. This idyllic Victorian mansion was transformed into the original Brooklyn Children’s Museum in Crown Heights, the world’s first children’s museum established in 1899.

Gracie Mansion, first home of the Museum of the City of New York

Gracie Mansion, first home of the Museum of the City of New York, ca. 1923, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.14217

[Gracie Mansion, Interior, Showing Old New York Costumes.]

Arthur Vitols, Byron Company, Gracie Mansion, Interior, Showing Old New York Costumes, The mannequins with old costumes in the Museum of the City of New York when its home was Gracie Mansion at 88th Street & East River, 1927, Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.3.566

Did you know that before Gracie Mansion became the home to New York City’s mayors, it was the original residence for The Museum of the City of New York? Preservationist Henry Collins Brown secured and restored the mansion to include domestic period rooms showcasing the blossoming collection. The City Museum differentiated itself from the New York Historical Society by focusing its acquisitions solely on New York City. Eventually the collection outgrew the historic home and the construction of the building at 1220 Fifth Avenue was spearheaded under the direction of James Speyer and completed with much celebration in 1932.

Juliana R. Force [residence]. Living room to window.

Samuel H. Gottscho, Juliana R. Force Residence. Whitney Museum of American Art, 1932, Museum of the City of New York, 88.1.1.2332

Time to pay a visit to the original Whitney Museum of American Art, originally situated in three adjoining Greenwich Village residencies at 8–12 West 8th Street. It was the first manifestation of The Whitney as a museum as well as the home of its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and her assistant, Juliana R. Force, who amassed an unprecedented collection of contemporary American Art.

Museum of Modern Art, birds-eye view from 41st floor of Rockefel

Wurts Brothers, Museum of Modern Art, birds-eye view from 41st floor of Rockefeller Center, 1941, Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.8137

Our tour now ends at the Museum of Modern Art. While still standing at the same location since the first permanent building was constructed in 1939, it has doubled in size and gone through several physical incarnations. Entertain yourself with this birds-eye of the then newly constructed MoMA  and then follow me downstairs to an opening reception.

John Vachon, Frank Bauman, Stanley Kubrick, Museum of Modern Art [Art opening.], 1949, Museum of the City of New York, X2011.4.12063.71

John Vachon, Frank Bauman, Stanley Kubrick, Museum of Modern Art [Art opening.], 1949, Museum of the City of New York, X2011.4.12063.71

Romeo and Juliet, a love story in pictures

Vandamm. [Katharine Cornell and Basil Rathbone.] 1934. Museum of the City of New York. 35.169.3

Vandamm. [Katharine Cornell and Basil Rathbone.] 1934. Museum of the City of New York. 35.169.3

It has been called the greatest love story of all time.  Even those who disagree can acknowledge that in the over 400 years since it was first performed, Romeo and Juliet has become one of the most well-known love stories in the world. Indeed, the tragic tale of forbidden love wasn’t original when William Shakespeare first put quill to page. The Bard borrowed liberally from classical stories and contemporary poems. Yet, it is his version that endures. The play was a Broadway staple in the early half of the 20th century, but a new production this fall is the first in over 25 years. The 36th Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet is currently playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and with an Off-Broadway production by the Classic Stage Company and a new film version in movie theaters, it is easier than ever to get your R+J fix. I’m taking the opportunity to revisit the romance with a pictorial re-telling from the Museum’s collection.

It begins like any love story could today, at a party. (Technically the play begins with a brawl, and when we first see Romeo, he’s mooning over someone else. Scholars be warned, I gloss over some bits.) Romeo Montague and his friends sneak into a party thrown by his family’s sworn enemy, the Capulets. Love strikes Romeo when he sees Juliet Capulet across a crowded room. Not knowing who she is, he proceeds to woo her. The scene below comes from the 1940 Broadway production starring real life off-stage lovers Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.

Willinger Hollywood. [Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier in Romeo and Juliet.] 1940. Museum of the City of New York. 68.808.9362

Willinger Hollywood. [Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in Romeo and Juliet] 1940. Museum of the City of New York. 68.808.9362

Juliet is won by the wooing, but very soon after they each discover who the other is. What comes next is Act II, scene ii, a.k.a. the “balcony scene.” It is later that same night when Juliet daydreams out loud on her balcony about the object of her infatuation. Romeo, overhearing her, reveals himself and they both profess their love. The scene is so famously associated with young love it is often lampooned such as in the comedic sketch from DeWolf Hopper and Marshall P. Wilder pictured below.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk. [DeWolf Hopper and Marshall P. Wilder in Romeo and Juliet.] ca. 1893. Museum of the City of New York. 39.124.47

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk. [DeWolf Hopper and Marshall P. Wilder in Romeo and Juliet] ca. 1893. Museum of the City of New York. 39.124.47

Juliet is called in from her balcony but promises to send a messenger to Romeo the next day. Romeo meets with his friend Friar Laurence to tell of his love and arrange to marry Juliet.  Juliet’s nurse, her messenger, finds Romeo later that day, and after a bawdy encounter with Romeo’s friend Mercutio, is able to have a heart-to-heart with him.

Clipping from The Theatre, Vol. III, no. 28, June 1903. Museum of the City of New York collection on Broadway productions, Romeo and Juliet file.

Clipping from The Theatre, Vol. III, no. 28, June 1903. Museum of the City of New York collection on Broadway productions, Romeo and Juliet file.

When her nurse returns, Juliet is able to coax the message out of her. The scene is played for comedy with the old nurse complaining about the wear and tear of the journey and the youthful Juliet impatient for news.

White Studio. [Jessie Ralph as the Nurse and Jane Cowl as Juliet.] 1923. Museum of the City of New York. 27.75.4

White Studio. [Jessie Ralph as the Nurse and Jane Cowl as Juliet.] 1923. Museum of the City of New York. 27.75.4

First comes love, then comes marriage. Juliet meets Romeo at Friar Laurence’s cell to be shrived and married.

Fred Fehl. [Larry Kert as Tony and Carol Lawrence as Maria.] 1957. Museum of the City of New York. 68.80.2959

Fred Fehl. [Larry Kert as Tony and Carol Lawrence as Maria] 1957. Museum of the City of New York. 68.80.2959

(Okay, I cheated a little here. The above picture is from the original Broadway production of West Side Story. My only defense is that it is based on Romeo and Juliet and is arguably the best musical ever made.) Their bliss is short lived. Before the sun sets on their marriage, Romeo’s friend Mercutio gets into a fight with Juliet’s cousin Tybalt with tragic consequences.

Byron Company. [James K. Hackett as Mercutio fights Campbell Gollan's Tybalt] 1899. Museum of the City of New York. 34.271.813G

Byron Company. [James K. Hackett as Mercutio fights Campbell Gollan’s Tybalt] 1899. Museum of the City of New York. 34.271.813G

Romeo comes between them, but in doing so allows Tybalt to deliver a death blow to his friend. After Mercutio dies, an incensed Romeo chases after Tybalt. The following photograph is from the 1968 Shakespeare in the Park production starring a young Martin Sheen as Romeo.

Unknown. [Martin Sheen as Romeo and Tom Aldredge as Tybalt.] 1968. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.298

Unknown. [Martin Sheen as Romeo and Tom Aldredge as Tybalt.] 1968. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.298

Romeo slays Tybalt and is banished from the city. He and Juliet are able to spend one night as husband and wife before he leaves. Below is an image of the good-bye from what today would be considered a strange pairing. Sisters Charlotte and Susan Cushman played Romeo and Juliet respectively to popular acclaim in the mid-19th century. Charlotte Cushman was one of the most respected actresses of her day, and also played Hamlet.

Lithograph by John Tallis & Company. [[Charlotte and Susan Cushman in Romeo and Juliet.] ca. 1850. Museum of the City of New York. 61.25.4

Lithograph by John Tallis & Company. [[Charlotte and Susan Cushman in Romeo and Juliet.] ca. 1850. Museum of the City of New York. 61.25.4

Acting on advice from Friar Laurence, the couple decide to wait an interval before announcing the marriage and bringing Romeo back. The Capulets throw a wrench in the works in the form of Paris, an eligible young bachelor. Faced with impending marriage to Paris and bigamy, Juliet looks to Friar Laurence for rescue. He devises a simple plan. Juliet will drink a potion to appear dead, the Friar will send for Romeo who, once he arrives, will awaken Juliet and they can live happily ever after. Easy, right?

White Studio. [Sayre Crawley as Friar Lawrence and Eva Le Gallinne as Juliet.] 1930. Museum of the City of New York. 50.281.290

White Studio. [Sayre Crawley as Friar Laurence and Eva Le Gallinne as Juliet.] 1930. Museum of the City of New York. 50.281.290

And of course, everything goes terribly wrong. Friar Laurence’s messenger is too late, Romeo thinks Juliet is really dead. He arrives at her tomb, drinks a potion and actually kills himself. Juliet awakens, sees Romeo dead and uses his dagger to stab herself. Terribly, terribly wrong.

Arnold Genthe. [Julia Marlowe as Juliet and E. H. Sothern as Romeo.] ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.299

Arnold Genthe. [Julia Marlowe as Juliet and E. H. Sothern as Romeo.] ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.41.299

The image that Shakespeare leaves us with is the reconciling of the two families.  The Montagues and Capulets hear the full tale of their children’s love and resolve to end their feud. For never was there a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo. Don’t believe me? Go see for yourself.

“145 Bluebells of Scotland and a Swiss Cheese to You!” – Corresponding with Carl Van Vechten

In May of 2013, with the generous support of the Gladys Kriebel Delmas Foundation,  the Museum of the City of New York hired Project Archivist Boni Joi Koelliker to begin processing the exhibition records (1926-present) in the Museum’s institutional archives.  Boni relates some of her experience working with the exhibition records, below:

There are many valuable records in institutional archives, and exhibition records contain an abundance of historic information documenting the long and arduous process of planning exhibitions: from the inception of the idea, to the proposal, to research and planning, to promotion, and finally the execution. One of the pleasures of working with the Museum’s exhibition records has been the treasures I’ve found along the way, such as recipes for old-time New York cocktails from Dining in Old New York (April 10-October 15, 1937), and the work of Carl Van Vechten, an artist I was not familiar with before.

While examining the records for The Theater through the Camera of Carl Van Vechten, an exhibition which ran from November 1942 to January 1943, I was delighted to find the correspondence between Van Vechten and May Davenport Seymour, curator of the Theater Collection (known at the time as the Theater and Music Collection). Van Vechten and Seymour’s correspondence provides the reader with pertinent information about the exhibition, including opening and closing dates, performances, lists of guests who attended the opening, as well as a view into the era in which the exhibition was held, and insight into the personalities of both the artist and the curator.

It is no surprise that Van Vechten’s letters would be well written; before mastering photography he had a career as a journalist, arts critic, and novelist. Van Vechten, or Carlo, as he was known to his literary and artistic circles, was a devoted pen pal who corresponded with Florine and Ettie Stettheimer (their sister Carrie created the Stettheimer Dollhouse which is currently on display on the second floor of the Museum), Gertrude Stein, H. L. Mencken, Langston Hughes, and many others.

Carrie Stettheimer

Carl Van Vechten. Carrie Stettheimer, October 8, 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 63.4.10

Van Vechten’s letters are filled with charm, originality, and wit – especially regarding his salutations and valedictions – making them a delight to read. As seen below, Van Vechten used a very colorful choice of stationary edged with flowers, his name in bold rust, top center.

Letter from Carl Van Vechten to May Davenport Seymour, November 17, 1942. Museum of the City of New York, Institutional Exhibition Records.

Letter from Carl Van Vechten to May Davenport Seymour, November 17, 1942. Museum of the City of New York, Institutional Exhibition Records.

In this particular letter the closing is the jewel: “156 camels hair shawls to you and the fragrance of myrrh, to say nothing of fifteen bowls of terrapin Maryland and a glass of champagne!” Seymour gets into the spirit in her letter to him dated November 19, 1942, responding, “Please think of me wrapped in the 156 camels hair shawls, drenched in myrrh, munching the terrapin while I sip the champagne, crooning ‘God Bless Carl Van Vechten.’”  The quote featured in the title of this post, “145 Bluebells of Scotland and a Swiss Cheese to You!”  is another example of one of Van Vechten’s characteristic salutations.

It is important to note that the country was at war; to mount an exhibit and get people to attend was a feat in itself.  Seymour conveys her appreciation to Van Vechten in her letter, stating, “We sold 131 catalogues and there were 259 people…it was the best attended opening, both in quality and quantity, that we have had for a very long time and I am still thrilled.”

Van Vechten’s warmth, generosity, creativity, and quirky spirit also infected his portrait photography. Although he expressed a life long interest in photography, he did not begin devoting all of his time to taking and developing his own photographs until he was in his early fifties, when a friend, Miguel Covarrubias, familiarized him with the 35mm Leica camera. Van Vechten had cultivated relationships with many artistic personalities through his work as a writer and critic, and his forays to Harlem to socialize with intellectuals, artists, and entertainers.  He also interacted with performers and entertainers on a regular basis through his volunteer position as the floor captain at the Stage Door Canteen, a nightclub for Allied servicemen sponsored by the American Theater Wing.

Carl Van Vechten. Corporal William Roney, Busboy Carl Van Vechten, Junior Hostess Janet Fox (Stage Door Canteen). March 5, 1943. Museum of the City of New York. 2010.10.4

Carl Van Vechten. Corporal William Roney, Busboy Carl Van Vechten, Junior Hostess Janet Fox (Stage Door Canteen). March 5, 1943. Museum of the City of New York. 2010.10.4

Van Vechten’s original intent was not to exhibit his work but to “photograph everybody and everything in the world!” His aspiration, his subjects, and his use of fabric backdrops (which he said were interpretations of Matisse paintings) coupled with his flair for dramatic lighting, pattern, and contrast became a recipe for success.

Carl Van Van Vechten. Helen Morgan, June 23, 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.374

Carl Van  Vechten. Helen Morgan, June 23, 1932. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.374

Carl Van Vechten. Alicia Markova, April 15, 1941. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.353.

Carl Van Vechten. Alicia Markova, April 15, 1941. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.353.

Van Vechten went on to produce about twenty thousand photographs, none of which he ever sold. All of his photographs were made at his own expense and usually given to the subject of the portrait, other friends, or photography collections.

Around the time of his exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, he may have been thinking about his legacy. In 1941 he donated his papers to the New York Public Library and a collection of photographs documenting the Harlem Renaissance to Yale University.  The Museum of the City of New York was the recipient of  four-hundred portrait photographs taken from the early 1930s through 1942, of actors, playwrights, set designers, musicians, singers, orchestra leaders, dancers, and night club entertainers.  Of these, Seymour chose 104 for the exhibition discussed above, The Theater through the Camera of Carl Van Vechten.  Here are some of the featured photographs that inspired so many patrons to make the trip uptown in the winter of 1942-1943:

Carl Van Vechten. Vincent Price, January 19, 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.387.

Carl Van Vechten. Vincent Price, January 19, 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.387.

Carl van Vechten. Fania Marinoff, September 5, 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.347.

Carl Van Vechten. Fania Marinoff, September 5, 1939. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.347.

Carl Van Vechten. Charles Weidman, December 4, 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.420.

Carl Van Vechten. Charles Weidman, December 4, 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.420.

Carl van Vechten. Bill Robinson, January 25, 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.392.

Carl Van Vechten. Bill Robinson, January 25, 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.392.

Can Van Vechten. Luise Rainer, September 2, 1937. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.389.

Can Van Vechten. Luise Rainer, September 2, 1937. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.389.

Carl Van Vechten. George M. Cohan, October 23, 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.266.

Carl Van Vechten. George M. Cohan, October 23, 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.266.

Visit the Museum of the City of New York Collections Portal to see more of Carl Van Vechten’s photographs.

Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland in a “Changing New York”

Archival Intern Suzanna Calev.

Archival Intern Suzanna Calev.

This week, we have a  guest post from our fabulous archival intern, Suzanna Calev, who is currently obtaining a double Master’s Degree in Library Science with a concentration in Archives Management and History at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. Suzanna recently completed processing Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York papers  (the finding aid is available on the Museum’s catablog for archival collections).  Suzanna’s  insights on the collection, and her experience of processing it:

Every time I return to New York, I find the city has changed.  Whether it is the demise of my favorite brunch place or the construction of a new high-rise, New York City is always changing, always re-inventing itself.  Being a native of the city, I should not be surprised by this, but I always have a mixed feeling of hope and nostalgia by the transformation of the city I love, missing the old stomping grounds from my childhood and hoping that the coming changes are favorable ones.

Perhaps this is exactly what the photographer Berenice Abbott felt when she returned to New York City in 1929. Originally from Springfield, Ohio, Abbott moved to Greenwich Village in 1918 with college friends. She moved to Paris in 1921 and it was there that she developed an interest in photography, working as an assistant to Man Ray. Her return to New York City was meant to be temporary, but when she saw how much the city had changed – the skyscrapers replacing nineteenth century classical columns, new towers and structures popping up all around her – she decided to move back permanently to capture this transformation through the lens of a camera.  For more information on Abbott’s life,  as well as the Changing New York  project, take a look at the finding aid for Berenice Abbot’s Changing New York papers.

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Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). “Park Avenue and 39th Street,” 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.91

After photographing the city independently for six years, unable to get financial support from organizations, foundations, or private individuals, she was finally hired by the Federal Art Project (FAP), a small division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) formed in 1935 to centralize various public work projects. The FAP was a relief agency for artists and supported the work of many painters, photographers, and printers, including Romare Bearden, Ben Shahn, and Lee Krasner.

In 1937 the Museum of the City of New York mounted an exhibition, Changing New York, of Abbott’s photographs for the FAP. This prompted interest in publishing a Changing New York book that would include both the photographs and captions written by Elizabeth McCausland, a writer, art critic, and Abbott’s longtime partner.

Abbott’s papers relating to the project, along with several of Abbott’s photographs from the Changing New York project, were in the custody of the Metropolitan Museum of Art prior to their transfer to the Museum of the City of New York.  The Changing New York materials appear to have been deposited with the Met as a matter of convenience, if not accident, when the FAP presented the Met with materials from another project.  Because of the City Museum’s role in the original exhibition, the Met felt the rightful home of the papers was with the City Museum and custody of the collection was transferred in 1947 along with 215 unmounted and 71 mounted photographs from the Changing New York project.

The Berenice Abbott papers contain the original captions proposed for the book and they are an absolute treasure to read.  They reveal the literary genius of McCausland, who attempted to produce cinematic effects with her descriptions of the photographs.  For example, she implored the reader to recite “like Vachel Lindsay’s train announcer” the names of various cheeses for Cheese Store on Bleecker.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). "Park Avenue and 39th Street," 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.91

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). “Cheese Store,” 1937. Museum of the City of New York. 40.140.29

Original, Unpublished captions by Elizabeth McCausland for Changing New York, "Berenice Abbott papers." Museum of the City of New York.

Original, Unpublished captions by Elizabeth McCausland for Changing New York, 1938, “Berenice Abbott Changing New York papers.” Museum of the City of New York.

E. P Dutton, the publisher of the book, foresaw many tourists visiting New York and buying guidebooks for the opening of the 1939 New York’s World Fair, so he wanted Abbott’s book to be a simple guidebook that could attract multiple audiences. As a result, he rejected McCausland’s original captions, such as the one for the Cheese Store, pictured above.  The published Cheese Store  caption below is strictly factual:

Excerpt from "Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott." New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1939, 84.

Excerpt from “Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott.” New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1939, 84.

It saddens me that Dutton didn’t use McCausland’s original captions.  The published captions lack her lyrical voice. Many of the original captions convey McCausland and Abbott’s political and social beliefs, which may have been too radical for Dutton and Co., Inc.  For example, the original caption for Gunsmith and Police Department suggested that the placement of the gun over the shop facing the police department in Abbott’s composition was intentional.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), "Gunsmith and Police Department," 1937. Museum of the City of New York. 49.282.113

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), “Gunsmith and Police Department,” 1937. Museum of the City of New York. 49.282.113

Original, Unpublished captions by Elizabeth McCausland for Changing New York, 1938, "Berenice Abbott Changing New York papers." Museum of the City of New York.

Original, Unpublished captions by Elizabeth McCausland for Changing New York, 1938, “Berenice Abbott Changing New York papers.” Museum of the City of New York.

McCausland’s bold caption above was replaced with a toned down version that suggested a cooperative relationship between the Police Department and Frank Lava’s gun shop:

Excerpt from "Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott." New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1939, 64.

Excerpt from “Changing New York: Photographs by Berenice Abbott.” New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1939, 64.

Although Dutton had final say over the captions, thankfully we can still see how Abbott and McCausland viewed the changing landscape of the city and how they wanted to impart these changes to the general public.  Despite the conflicting vision over the Dutton book, it is comforting to know that no matter what the era, New York City continuously surprises and mesmerizes its inhabitants.

Wurts Bros. New York City Photography

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Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) Rockefeller Center. Ca. 1931. Museum of the City of new York. X2010.7.1.12414

Many photographers have captured New York City architecture over the years, but few have been so prolific, nor have they documented the construction of so many iconic New York City landmarks as the Wurts Brothers.

In 1894 Lionel and Norman Wurts established one of the first architectural photography studios in New York City.  Over the next 85 years the two brothers, and later Lionel’s son, Richard, gained recognition and many prominent clients including Cass Gilbert (The Woolworth Building), Consolidated Gas Company (now known as Con Ed) , and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (the firm now building One World Trade Center).

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Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) Wurts Brothers Signs. Ca. 1919. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.2507

The Wurts Bros. worked alongside architects, engineers, and rental agents to record major New York City landmarks under construction during some of the city’s most dynamic years of expansion. Their images are widely recognizable and have been reproduced in many architectural and general interest magazines over the years. The Museum of the City of New York retains the firm’s archives of over 45,000 prints and negatives. Over the last four years our Collections team has worked on cataloging, rehousing, and digitizing this collection, supported by two generous grants from the Leon Levy Foundation.

A good example of the historic record contained within the Wurts Bros. photographs is the construction of the Woolworth Building.  On April 24, 1913, nearly 100 years ago, construction was completed on the 792-foot skyscraper. The Woolworth Building was the tallest building in the world until 1930, when the Chrysler Building would overtake it.

woolworths

Clockwise from upper left hand corner: Wurts Bros. Woolworth Building, exterior from S.E Corner. February 3, 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.3857. Wurts Bros. Woolworth Building, exterior from S.E. April 4, 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.3875. Wurts Bros. Broadway and Barclay Street. Woolworth Building, general view from S.E. April 8, 1913. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.4390. Wurts Bros. Woolworth Building, general exterior from S.E. June 7, 1912. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.3886

The Wurts Bros. captured the majority of their beautiful images utilizing a large format view camera and glass plate negatives, which render the images incredibly sharp, striking, and detailed.  They shot with wide angle lenses and bellows that allowed them to twist and turn the camera for spectacular views that are otherwise impossible to see. To a viewer standing at ground level looking up, buildings appear tall and skinny like a needle. To correct for this misleading perspective, Lionel Wurts crafted a technique of shooting from the upper floors of an adjacent building while skillfully working with the camera bellows and lenses to create perfectly even and square portraits of skyscrapers and buildings. The majority of the Wurts Bros. collection was captured on these large, heavily detailed glass plate negatives, but as acetate film became more ubiquitous they began to shoot with smaller format film as well.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) Broadway and Exchange Place. Norman Wurts making photos from 4th-story ledge on Exchange Court Building, 1937. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.8427

Wurts Bros. Broadway and Exchange Place. Norman Wurts making photos from 4th-story ledge on Exchange Court Building, 1937. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.8427

Here are some fabulous examples of the type of documentary style the Wurts Bros. are best known for:

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Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) 5th Avenue West 58th Street. Central Park South. Plaza Hotel. Ca. 1905 Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.730

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Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) Broadway and 34th Street. R.H. Macy Co. Ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.1948

The Wurts Bros. were also contracted to photograph facades and interiors of luxurious New York residences like this one from 40 West 57th Street, giving  viewers a glimpse inside spectacular upper class residences they could only before imagine.

Wurts Bros. 40 West 57th Street. H.B. Gilbert residence, front. Ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.11

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) 40 West 57th Street. H.B. Gilbert residence, front. Ca. 1910. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.1185

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) 40 West 57th Street. H.B. Gilbert residence, parlor at windows. Ca. 1910. Museum of the City of new York. X2010.7.1.1196

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) 40 West 57th Street. H.B. Gilbert residence, parlor at windows. Ca. 1910. Museum of the City of new York. X2010.7.1.1196

The Wurts Bros. name is also synonymous with the New York World’s Fair Exhibition of 1939. Richard Wurts, the son of Lionel, documented the construction and grandeur of the fair grounds. In the winter of 1939 he had a one man show of these photos at the Museum of the City of New York called “Building the 1939 New York World’s Fair.” Here are some photos from the exhibition:

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Richard Wurts. Supreme (Food and Sports Building, dome). 1938. Museum of the City of New York. 39.567.1.31

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Richard Wurts. See My Shadow (Perisphere from top Trylon). 1938. Museum of the City of New York. 39.567.1.11

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Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) ca. 1939. View of World’s Fair from a subdivision. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.15559

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Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) ca. 1939. Richard Wurts with his photograph of World’s Fair. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.15437

Operating as a commercial studio through several generations of New York City history, the Wurts Bros. had a broad spectrum of clientele. They chronicled everything from skyscrapers to houses; office buildings to schools; tools to artwork. They documented so much of New York City that it’s hard to find something they didn’t photograph.

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Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) Madison Avenue at the corner of 129th Street. All Saints Roman Catholic Church, interior view looking at organ. Ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.304.

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Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) 31st Street and 6th Avenue, N.W. corner. Greeley Square Building, men’s urinal partitions. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.6250

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Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) Master plumber with lead windmill model made up of lead wiped joints, lead pipe, 1931. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.7577

Wurts Bros. (New York, NY) Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.5505

Wurts Bros. (New York, NY) 40th Street and 5th Avenue. Murphy Door Bed Co., interior, Ca. 1921. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.7.1.5505

For more images click here

Photographing Our Painting Collection

Here in the Museum of the City of New York’s Collections Department we have embarked on an exciting new project to digitize selected objects from our paintings holdings. This is the first time we have shot paintings and, while every object in our collection requires special attention while being photographed, when we start a new medium there are always new things to consider. In this case we had to think about how to deal with shiny surfaces that reflect light and create highlights that are hard to remove by merely adjusting the angle of our lights. We purchased custom filters for our Broncolor Lightbars fit with a polarized film and then attached a polarizing filter to the lens of our Hasselblad H4D. If you have ever worn polarized sunglasses then you know that looking through a polarizing filter greatly reduces glare and reflections from shiny surfaces. With the added polarizing film on our lights and the polarizing filter on our camera lens we are able to completely zero out all reflections coming off the painting and spilling into our camera. If you would like a complete breakdown of how polarization works read this.

Here is an example of New York politician and judge Gabriel George Ludlow, shot with and without the polarizing filter so you can see how really effective this method is. The artist of this beautiful portrait, John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), was an influential painter in colonial America and is well-known for his portraits of prominent figures.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Gabriel George Ludlow. ca. 1770. Museum of the City of New York. 72.31.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). Gabriel George Ludlow. ca. 1770. Museum of the City of New York. 72.31.

We are very excited to make these paintings accessible to researchers and curators to view and study without having to make a trip to our storage facility. The portrait collection consists of prominent New Yorkers by many well-known artists from the early 1700’s through the 1980’s. Some of the real gems of our collection include portraits of DeLancey Iselin Kane and Eleanora Iselin Kane by the artist Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938). The portrait of DeLancey Iselin Kane is considered his most famous portrait and has been published extensively. The painting is in its original frame, designed specifically for the portrait by Stanford White.

Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938). DeLancey Iselin Kane. 1887. Museum of the City of New York. 40.417

Other paintings of note are the James Abercrombie Burden Family by Eastman Johnson; Cornelius and Sarah Bogart Ray by John Wollaston; and A Spanish Boy by Alice Neel.  Many of these paintings underwent restoration and cleaning prior to their digitization. Our painting collection ranges from the typical turn-of-the-century portraits as seen above to this dark and moody portrait of John Barrymore in the character of Hamlet painted by James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960) ca. 1923.

James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960). John Barrymore as Hamlet. ca. 1923. Museum of the City of New York. 46.414.1.

We set up a temporary studio for three days in a temporarily empty gallery on our newly renovated third floor.  Here is a shot of our setup in action. Please check in with our collections portal in the near future to view this amazing collection in your own home.