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Ever since New York moved north to encompass what we now call the Flatiron district, this area has been the scene of many matters of historic or cultural importance. They range from the neighborhood's contribution to the English language to one of the most unusual "riots" ever seen in this city.

Starting in March 2008, the BID began chronicling these events in a series called Flatiron Flashback. Written by the BID staff, the series has been collected and packaged here. New chapters will appear as they are completed, so click on the links below and take a trip through time to an era that is gone but not forgotten.

The Birth of Baseball | The House of Refuge | 23 Skidoo |
Rocking Chair Riots | Statue of Liberty's arm in Mad. Sq. Park |
Tin Pan Alley | The Coaching Club | The Dewey Arch | Henri LaMothe
Eden Musée | The Armory Show of 1913 | The Tragic Fire of 1966
Madison Square Garden | Booth's Theatre | Murder on 23rd Street


The Birth of Baseball
- (March 2008)

 

The origins of baseball are shrouded in mist, with some historians citing even ancient civilizations as the true birthplace, but this much seems clear: the modern game owes much to a native New Yorker named Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr. who played it within the Flatiron district, on a field just north of the area that became Madison Square Park, and whose refinements shaped it into the version we know today.

Cartwright, cited in 1953 by the U.S. Congress as the founder of the modern game, was born in 1820. He was a bank clerk who became a bookseller when the bank folded. A strapping young fellow, Cartwright was also a volunteer fireman at the Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 12, at Pearl and Cherry Streets. On late summer afternoons, he and his firehouse buddies would gather in a park at 27th Street and Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) when the area was known as the Parade Ground, where they would play a rude version of baseball.

Cartwright formed a team and called it the Knickerbockers - no relation to the basketball team whose home is Madison Square Garden. The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, the first organized team in baseball history, played against other New York squads, but urbanization forced Cartwright to seek new venues. In 1845, baseball moved across the Hudson to an old cricket grounds in Hoboken, N.J., known as Elysian Fields. There, on Sept. 23, Cartwright composed a list of rules. They included foul lines; three strikes to an out; three outs to an inning; and a square infield with bases at each corner, approximately 90 feet apart. In addition, baserunners could be called out either by being tagged or forced, rather than being hit by a thrown ball.  

On June 19, 1846, what is regarded as the first officially recorded baseball game went into the books. Cartwright was the umpire and he enforced a fine of six cents against any player who used foul language. The Knickerbockers met the New York Nine and lost, 23-1. On March 1, 1849, Cartwright did something two of New York's major league baseball teams would do more than a century later. He left for California in search of gold.

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The House of Refuge
- (April 2008)

 

It stood just north of where the Flatiron Building is now, a formidable-looking structure of stone and brick that was built in the early years of the 19th century to house and train soldiers during the War of 1812. Within a short time, however, it would make history as the House of Refuge - this country's first reformatory for juvenile delinquents and the model for others in large cities.

The House of Refuge was the brainchild of a newly formed civic organization called the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism and Crime, which felt that incarcerating youngsters with "older and more hardened criminals" did nothing to improve their prospects of rehabilitation. The children deserved their own quarters, and the armory, no longer needed for war, became the New-York House of Refuge. On Jan. 1, 1825, the new reformatory welcomed its first inmates, six boys and three girls. As the delinquent population grew, separate wings for boys and girls were added and the original rectangular building became U-shaped. In 1839, a fire destroyed almost all of it and the House of Refuge was relocated to 23rd Street and the East River. In 1852 it was moved once again, this time to Randall's Island, with plans to house up to 1,300 juvenile offenders.

In a 3,400-word article published on Jan. 23, 1860, The New York Times extolled the virtues of the House of Refuge, citing its commitment to education, its vocational opportunities, even its cuisine, and describing its administrators as "having been, from the first, among our most judicious and philanthropic citizens." Other Houses of Refuge sprang up in Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

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But the true picture wasn't as cheerful as all that. It wasn't long before investigations uncovered an enormous amount of abuse inside the walls of the reformatories: excessive corporal punishment, exploitation of the inmates as sources of cheap labor for outside contractors, virtually no classroom education or vocational instruction to prepare the children for a better life. The Houses of Refuge eventually disappeared, relics of a bygone time, their passing mourned by few.

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23 Skidoo
- (June 2008)

 

The expression "23 skidoo," a slang way of referring to a hasty departure, usually at the behest of external factors, became popular early in the 1900s. On that, there is general agreement. The origins of the phrase, however, are murky.

For some word detectives, "23 skidoo" had its origins in California's Death Valley at the start of the 20th century, when gold was discovered near a shabby little town called Skidoo. When the vein disappeared, so did Skidoo. Other lexicographers say that "23" was a telegrapher's shorthand way of saying, "Begone!" while still others mention English racetracks, which reportedly limited entries in any event to 23 horses. When that number was reached, the horses got the signal to scamper.

The most popular theory, however, has its roots in the heart of the Flatiron district, at the intersection of Fifth Avenue, Broadway and - naturally - 23rd Street.

The relative positions of those streets, the adjacent expanse of Madison Square Park and the triangular shape of the Flatiron Building when it was completed in 1902 all had the effect of increasing the velocity of winds that came swirling through the neighborhood. Otherwise gentle breezes gathered strength and often wreaked havoc with the long dresses that were then fashionable, lifting skirts well above a lady's shoetops. At a time when even "a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking," the possibility of a peek provided great sport for local idlers, wiseacres and even precocious young lads who should have been averting their eyes instead of whooping with glee when an ankle flashed into view. The police, or Roundsmen as they were then known, combined gallantry with crowd control and were said to disperse the Peeping Toms by giving them "the 23 skidoo."

The "23" part of that theory is self-evident (23rd Street), while "skidoo" is likely a derivative of "skedaddle," a verb implying a very quick departure, and the sooner the better. Skedaddle itself might be a dialect form of "scatter." Ironically, the expression "23 skidoo" reached the pinnacle of its popularity during the Roaring Twenties, a period when women's hemlines were higher, morals were lower and bare limbs were as common as lipstick-stained cigarette butts.

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Rocking Chair Riots
- (July 2008)

 

The summer of 1901 was a scorcher. For eight consecutive days, from June 26 to July 3, the temperature in Manhattan hit at least 99 degrees, the longest such stretch in the city's annals. The big heat not only made history, it precipitated one of New York's oddest "riots" and it happened in the heart of the Flatiron district.

An enterprising fellow named Oscar F. Spate had paid the city $500 for a five-year contract to install green wicker rocking chairs in several New York parks, including Madison Square Park. In return, Spate could charge the overheated a nickel for the privilege of parking themselves in one of his rockers. This did not exactly thrill most people, for whom the parks in those days of no air-conditioning offered one of the few opportunities to catch a breeze or find some shade beneath leafy boughs.

There was instant opposition from newspaper editorials, area merchants and just about everyone else. On July 6, one of Spate's men was forced to flee into the Fifth Avenue Hotel at 23rd Street, chased there by a crowd after smacking a teenage heckler. Two days later, reported The New York Times, trouble again broke out in Madison Square Park when "a number of young urchins . . . jeered at the chair attendants and hooted anyone who dared to give a nickel for the use of the private chairs." Spate's coin-collectors started to get physical with the kids, but adults in the area sprang to the boys' defense, fighting with the attendants. Soon, "a small riot was in progress." Extra police were called and instructed not to bother nonpayers unless there was a breach of the peace. Before order was restored, a crowd around the Worth Monument numbered 1,500. On July 10, Spate's permit was revoked.

Interestingly, Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck - New York's first mayor after consolidation of the city in 1898 and the man for whom the Van Wyck Expressway was named - was furious when he learned there were only 11,000 free benches in all Manhattan parks. "There ought to be 50,000," he thundered to the Board of Estimate. He had little time to carry out that mission. Four months after the "rocking chair riot," Van Wyck, a scandal-ridden Tammany Hall politician whose campaign slogan was "To Hell With Reform," was defeated in his bid for reelection.

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Statue of Liberty's arm in Mad. Sq. Park
- (September 2008)

 

Although the Statue of Liberty was not unveiled in New York Harbor until October 1886, a significant portion of Lady Liberty had become a curious addition to the Flatiron landscape a decade earlier.

French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi had originally planned to have the statue ready for presentation to the U.S. on July 4, 1876, when the nation would be celebrating its centennial. Delays prevented that, however, and the work continued in Bartholdi's Paris studio. Still, the torch and giant right arm (the index finger alone is 8 feet long) had been completed and that part of the statue was shipped to Philadelphia, where it was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition. Later that year, the arm and torch were sent to New York and installed at the northern end of Madison Square Park as part of a campaign to raise funds for the construction of a pedestal.

There it remained for the next six years and though the upraised arm with its golden torch was destined to become perhaps the most iconic symbol of freedom in modern history, its presence in the park did not escape mockery.

The New-York Times (it carried a hyphen in those days, as did the city itself) published an editorial on Feb. 26, 1877, poking fun at the incomplete work.

"Since New-York has delayed to furnish money enough for a completion of the entire statue," said the Times, "it has been decided that a piece of a statue is better than no statue whatever. Accordingly one of the arms of the Bartholdi statue, with its accompanying hand, has been placed on a pedestal in Madison-square, where it has excited the warm admiration of the infants who infest the place. Thus, those persons who have already contributed money to the enterprise have the pleasure of knowing that their money has not been wasted. They have not been able to procure a whole statue, but they have ornamented the City with a nice large piece of the intended statue's arm. This is clearly better than no statue at all, and it will be readily admitted that the gigantic arm and hand which ornament the upper part of Madison-square are at least as beautiful as the gilt Seward which sits at the southern gate in the apparent act of collecting statistics of the number of nurses and children who pass its pedestal."

The last reference, of course, is to the bronze statue of William H. Seward, which had gone up in the park only a few months earlier.

The Times went on to suggest that other parts of Lady Liberty be distributed around the city: "Since one arm of the statue is already in Madison-square, the other arm ought to be placed in Union-square. The head would, of course, be allotted to the City Hall Park, where the boot-blacking youth of our City could climb among its brazen locks, and survey the imposing spectacle of a review of a regiment of Militia from the statue's eyes. Where to place the body, or the trunk, of Liberty, would be a question requiring careful consideration. Having neither arms, legs, nor head, it would not be easily recognizable by rural visitors . . . "

By 1882, the Times' editors seemed to be somewhat more sanguine about the statue, writing: "Those of us who have pensively contemplated the Titanic fist of this statue during its prolonged exhibition in Madison-square are haunted with a desire to see the completed work."

Four years later, they did. The original torch, having been damaged by an explosion in a New Jersey munitions dump in 1916 and weakened by subsequent modifications, was replaced during a 1980s restoration and is now in the statue's lobby museum on Liberty Island. From 1886 until 1902, its beacon was as pragmatic as it was patriotic. During those years, the Statue of Liberty was more than a symbol. It was also a lighthouse, and the first to use electricity.

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Tin Pan Alley
- (December 2008)

It’s been 32 years since the bronze plaque was embedded into the sidewalk near the corner of West 28th Street and Broadway, a plaque commemorating the area as "Tin Pan Alley . . . where the business of the American popular song flourished during the first decades of the 20th century."

Today, that plaque is partially obscured by support for a scaffold. It is barely visible to most passersby, a faint echo of what used to be.

In the years preceding World War I, the two-block stretch of 28th Street from Fifth to Sixth Avenues was the cradle of the Great American Songbook. It resounded with the plunking of pianos pounding out some of the most memorable melodies ever written, pop tunes that became standards.

These days, the music on West 28th Street is provided by the horns of impatient automobiles, the patois of street vendors and the riffs of construction workers. Costume jewelry, T-shirts, accessories, sunglasses and perfume fill street-level stores, while sidewalk salesmen deal in more esoteric items.

Now there are issues involving developers, preservationists and tenants in some of the 19th-century brownstones between Broadway and Sixth Avenue where giants like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin hustled their songs and got their start.

One such structure is the brownstone at 45 West 28th Street, once the premises of Jerome H. Remick & Co., a noted music publisher a century ago. A faded photograph of George Gershwin remains taped inside the vestibule door with a caption stating he once worked there. It was in Tin Pan Alley in 1919 that the young Gershwin is said to have met another budding legend, lyricist Irving Caesar, and where they collaborated on "Swanee," their first hit tune.

The Tin Pan Alley plaque was dedicated on July 26, 1976 in front of a small crowd gathered around a flatbed truck holding an upright piano on which Harold Arlen, Burton Lane and Sammy Cahn played a hit parade of passages from songs they had written. By then, the music publishers were long gone, having followed the theater district uptown. The area eventually became part of a thriving flower district, but that too changed as most of the petal-pushers moved elsewhere.

How Tin Pan Alley got its name is shrouded in myth, but the most popular explanation involves one Monroe H. Rosenfeld, a song writer and newspaper columnist, and music publisher Harry von Tilzer, the composer of such ditties as "Wait 'Til the Sun Shines Nellie" and "She's Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage."

Von Tilzer (whose kid brother, Albert, composed "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") had an office at 42 West 28th Street. Rosenfeld came to visit one afternoon and asked why Harry's piano sounded muted.

Von Tilzer replied, "It's because so many pianos are being played around here, we put strips of newspaper in back of the strings to keep the sound down."

"It sounds like a tin pan," Rosenfeld said.

"Yes," said von Tilzer. "I guess this is tin pan alley."

Rosenfeld wrote a column about it, and the term was launched. There are other explanations, but this one - like many of the songs that came out of Tin Pan Alley - has, through repeated play, become a standard.

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The Coaching Club
- (February 2009)

 

When a New Yorker by the name of William Jay died in 1915, The New York Times reported that he was a direct descendent of John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, that he came from a family that had been a significant influence in the city for more than two centuries, and that he was a splendid horseman, an exceptional polo player and the president of a hunt club when riding to hounds was popular.

"But by far," said the Times, "the most notable of his sporting activities was the founding of the New York Coaching Club, the pioneer coaching organization in this country, and one of the greatest influences in the evolution of four-in-hand driving."

Coaching became popular as a recreation or amusement around 1868, in England. The four-in-hand version called for special skills because the "whip," or driver, held the reins of all four horses in one fist. According to The New International Encyclopedia, it required "coolness, judgment and acknowledge of horses."

The New York Coaching Club, born in 1875 in the heart of Madison Square -- then the city's center of fashionable society -- not only contributed to the breeding of harness horses in the U.S., but dazzled the metropolis with its periodic parades, starting at the northern edge of Madison Square Park and tooling up Fifth Avenue and onto the new carriage drives in Central Park. Thousands of onlookers lined the streets, gaping at the well-heeled and formally dressed whips as they guided their prancing horses over the cobblestones while the blast of a traditional coaching horn cleared the road ahead.

The Coaching Club was headquartered in the Brunswick Hotel, at Fifth Avenue and 26th Street. (For more about the hotel, see the Discover Flatiron item in this newsletter.) Its mission was to establish standards of excellence in style and technique that emulated those in England. It is probably no coincidence that the Brunswick was enormously popular with visiting Brits.

Beginning in 1876, the club staged semi-annual parades that would go as far north as Pelham (now part of the Bronx) and New Rochelle, and sometimes east to Long Island. On the way back, the coaches would rumble down to Washington Square and wheel around the fountain before heading back to the Brunswick, where club members would take their dinner. Songs such as "Coaching to Pelham" became popular (Jump on board now, one and all/Take the coach for Pelham/Hark! The bugler sounds the call/"All aboard for Pelham"/Goodbye Brunswick, Here we go/Rocking on to Pelham/Up and down, and to and fro/On the coach for Pelham).

Although this was clearly not a poor man's activity, those who could scrape together an extra couple of dollars could purchase passage in one of the coaches and also enjoy a lengthy stop in the country, including a picnic lunch. Reservations were placed weeks in advance. Some of the town's more pompous citizens almost became ill at the thought of the proletariat riding in these elegant carriages whose aristocratic owners were, in effect, acting as chauffeurs. But the charismatic De Lancey Astor Kane, one of the club's founders, pointed out that in England, the very titled Marquis of Blandford, heir to the Duke of Marlborough, had driven his coach as a public conveyance between London and Dorking - so there!

Kane's four-in-hand, one of the original Coaching Club vehicles, was called the Tally-ho. Canary yellow with black trim, it was so distinctive that from then on any coach-and-four was called a "tally-ho" by the general public. Kane's Tally-ho was donated to the Museum of the City of New York in 1933. It remained there until last summer, when it was transferred to the Long Island Museum of Art, History and Carriages in Stony Brook, N.Y.

The Coaching Club still exists, promoting coaching and sponsoring special events, but the introduction of Henry Ford's Model T in 1908 all but put an end to its traditional New York parades. Two years later, the club sounded the horn for its final Fifth Avenue pageant and its elegant carriages and well-disciplined horses set forth for a final triumphal march on their way to becoming a quaint memento of the city's Gilded Age.

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The Dewey Arch - (March 2009)

 

A year after the battle of Manila Bay -- a stunning naval victory by the United States over Spain in 1898, an event that established the U.S. as a global military power -- the architect of that historic engagement in the Philippines was invited to New York for a triumphal celebration in his honor. If Admiral George Dewey's entrance into the city in the waning summer days of 1899 wasn't quite as elaborate as Cleopatra's into Rome, it was not for lack of trying.

The hero's welcome that awaited him lasted several days, two of which were declared state holidays by Governor Theodore Roosevelt. The festivities included a flotilla of ships steaming up the Hudson, led by Dewey's cruiser, the USS Olympia, on Sept. 29, 1899, and culminated in a spectacular parade through Manhattan on Sept. 30. The reviewing stand was at Fifth Avenue and 24th Street, where a colossal arch and colonnade had been erected.

Because time was tight, however, it was decided to first build a temporary arch out of "staff," a construction material that combined plaster and wood shavings. Later, when enough money had been raised, the arch would be reproduced in stone. That, after all, had been the successful scenario for the Washington Square Arch just a few years earlier.

The Dewey Arch, designed by architect Charles R. Lamb, was based on the Arch of Titus in Rome and was produced by 28 sculptors. It was topped by a quadriga, a chariot pulled by four horses running abreast. This one, in keeping with the occasion, depicted four seahorses pulling a ship.

The day after the parade, The New York Times published almost 29,000 words of coverage. Describing the Dewey Arch, the newspaper waxed poetic: "Imagine arch and columns shining whiter than marble, brilliant and spotless in dazzling candidness. Imagine a brilliant atmosphere electrified by a gusty west wind, through which pours sunshine cooled by the breeze, but giving to every capital on every column, to every projection, and to all the statues and groups and reliefs that charm of keenly cut shadows which pure white marble offers. Imagine the shadows of branches and foliage mottling these white surfaces with dark spots that quiver with the gamboling of the wind."

The parade itself stepped off from 125th Street at 11:22 a.m. and, to the spirited sound of Sousa marches and the roar of the multitudes, continued south on Riverside Drive, then Central Park West and, finally, Fifth Avenue, which according to The Times, had been swept "as clean as a good housewife's pantry."

Contemporaneous accounts place the number of spectators at two million, with most of them seemingly determined to squeeze as close to Madison Square as possible.

Admiral Dewey, together with Mayor Robert A. Van Wyck, was in the first horse-drawn carriage, a splendid Victoria pulled by a quartet of sturdy bays. Forty-three other coaches, filled with assorted dignitaries, followed, and then came almost 35,000 military personnel. Several newspaper accounts reported that the sky was filled with butterflies.

Ironically, when Dewey's carriage reached the arch, he disembarked and was shown directly to the reviewing stand. Consequently, he never actually passed through his own triumphal arch. That might have been an omen, for despite all the hoopla, Dewey mania turned out to be as temporary as his arch. The plan to convert the monument into something permanent was finally abandoned when fund-raising and public interest waned and in 1901, after the structure began to deteriorate badly, it was removed from Madison Square, just another fallen arch.

In 1996, a bar and restaurant called Dewey's Flatiron opened on Fifth Avenue near 25th Street. With its murals of the Battle of Manila Bay and a replica of the Dewey Arch atop the back bar, it may be the only tangible reminder left of the Admiral and his big day at Madison Square.

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Henri LaMothe - (April 2009)

On the morning that Henri LaMothe turned 50, he decided to observe the occasion by visiting the Flatiron Building. He took with him a magnesium ladder that could stretch 40 feet in the air and a collapsible plastic pool that could hold perhaps two feet of water. He set up his equipment just in front of the Flatiron's "cowcatcher" on 23rd Street, filled the pool, climbed the ladder and, to the astonishment of a crowd of gaping onlookers, launched himself into space like a human cannonball, or what one observer called "a flying squirrel." He arched his back, raised his chin, extended his arms and executed a perfect belly flop into the shallow puddle almost four stories below. Splat! When he got to his feet, his back was still dry.

That stunt took place on April 2, 1954 -- exactly 55 years ago this month -- and LaMothe repeated it at the Flatiron Building every year for the next 20 years. Most stunt divers keep increasing the height of their jumps as they go along, but LaMothe was, as one might suspect, different. He didn't raise the bridge, he lowered the water. As the years rolled by, the level of liquid that received Henri's plummeting body behaved as though it were evaporating. In 1974, when LaMothe was 70, he was diving into a pool just a smidgen more than 12 inches deep.

That was good enough to earn him a place in the Guinness Book of Records, plus a life-size wax mannequin at the Guinness Museum on Hollywood Boulevard, alongside such other oddities as Robert Wadlow (the world's tallest man, 8 feet 11 1/4 inches), Lucia Zarate (the world's smallest woman, 26 inches high and 13 pounds, soaking wet) and Michael Jackson.

Before LaMothe began his birthday splashdowns at the Flatiron Building, he had been a cab driver in his native Chicago, a dancer in Charleston contests, a commercial artist in New York, and a diving clown in water shows around the country, including one run by his boyhood friend Johnny Weissmuller. (Yes, that Johnny Weissmuller.) He appeared on "What's My Line?" in 1958 and was profiled in Sports Illustrated in 1975.

LaMothe's specialty act contributed to more than show business lore. In 1976, when he was 72, he volunteered for testing at General Motors, which, as part of its development of safety features on cars, was trying to determine how much stress the human body could take. Until then, according to The New York Times, an impact of up to 48 G's had been registered on a test subject (48 times that person's body weight). LaMothe executed one of his dives with measuring instruments attached to his body. When GM scientists read the results, they could scarcely believe them. LaMothe had withstood a force on his chest of close to 70 G's.

Henri LaMothe kept his feet on the ground for most of the next 11 years. He died in 1987 at the age of 83. He had suffered only one high-diving injury in his life, reported his wife, Birgit. Once, she said, he hurt his nose.

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Eden Musée - (May 2009)

It was in the spring of 1884, when the area around Madison Square was the social epicenter of New York, that the Eden Musée made its debut at 55 West 23rd Street, just down the block from the elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel. That was 125 years ago, but it was an opening night not unlike today's premieres. Some 2,000 New Yorkers, including the city's social, cultural and political elite, flocked to the Eden "by special invitation," eager to see what its promoters called "a Temple of Art without a rival in this country."

Inspired by the spectacular success of Madame Tussaud's in London, the Eden offered an astonishing collection of wax works, described on opening night by The New York Times as "strikingly realistic in colors and attitudes." There was, for example, a tableau representing world rulers such as Queen Victoria, Pope Leo XIII and Prime Minister Léon Gambetta of France. In side alcoves, Napoleon III lay in state and Washington crossed the Delaware. Light refreshments were served in a music room, a reflection of the proprietors' desire to make the Eden comfortable for women and children.

For those interested in more lurid presentations, a crypt beneath the ground floor served as a Chamber of Horrors. On opening night, reported The Times, a group of tableaus depicted "different methods of executing offenders."

Although the Eden was primarily known as a house of wax, it also housed a myriad, and sometimes bizarre, collection of other attractions. To be sure, there were any number of conventional and uplifting events such as concerts and ballets. There were exhibits of orchids and butterflies and even rare postage stamps, and in 1887, an art gallery was added.

But there were other, odder lures. For the 50-cent entry fee, one could be entertained and educated by the likes of Professor J. Hartl and his nine Viennese lady fencers . . . Chief Sitting Bull and some of his braves, who showed visitors what life was like on the Great Plains . . . six-year-old Walter Leon, who discoursed on subjects such as "Is Marriage a Failure?" . . . and all manner of magicians, fantasists, illusionists and mentalists, including a 16-year-old Joseph Dunninger, who would go on to become known as "the mastermind of mental mystery" and perform before six U.S. presidents.

One of the longest-running attractions at the Eden was Ajeeb, a 10-foot figure with a wax head wrapped in a turban that would play checkers or chess and invariably defeat all comers, each of whom coughed up a few coins for the privilege of competing. Ajeeb was billed as a "robot," but beneath the robes and cape that swathed its papier-mâché body, a series of small men who were chess experts took turns manipulating Ajeeb's arm and moving the appropriate pieces. According to a 1943 article in The New Yorker, Ajeeb's challengers included the writer O. Henry, who lived nearby; the great actress Sarah Bernhardt; and Christy Mathewson, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the New York Giants. Ajeeb debuted in 1886 and remained in the Eden until it finally went bankrupt in 1915, a victim of a growing form of entertainment called movies. That was ironic because the Eden had been showing motion pictures as early as 1895, but its interest in film waned while its devotion to wax waxed. The building was razed in 1916.

Some contents of the Eden were sold at auction, but many of the wax works provided a touch of class at a new, more raffish location: Coney Island. There, amid the sideshows and carnival rides, a large sign over the entrance proudly proclaimed: "Eden Musée, formerly of 23rd St. New York."

 

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The Armory Show of 1913 - (July 2009)

Perhaps it is hard to believe now, but just before the first World War, relatively few Americans were familiar with artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh and scores of others equally notable. Even fewer had ever seen their work.

That all changed in February of 1913, when one of the most important exhibits in the history of modern art was mounted, and it all happened in the Flatiron district. The epicenter of this monumental event was the 69th Regiment Armory, the red brick fortress on Lexington Avenue and 25th Street. It had been completed seven years earlier, but first entered the national spotlight as the setting for the International Exhibition of Modern Art, or as it became known, the Armory Show.

As a bronze plaque next to the Armory entrance points out, it was an event that "revolutionized the American art movement by bringing to national attention the new art forms of native American and modern European painters and sculptors."

The show opened on Feb. 15 and ran for a month. By the time it ended, on March 15, an estimated 75,000 visitors had toured the 18 galleries on the Armory's main floor and saw almost 1,300 paintings and sculptures by more than 300 artists from the U.S. and Europe. Many were delighted by what they saw. Many more were dismayed.

Modern art, especially Cubism and Futurism, was a shock to a public accustomed to more conventional means of expression. One of the most controversial works on exhibit was Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2," in which the artist depicted motion by superimposed images that were similar to stop-motion photography. One critic likened it to "an explosion in a shingle factory." Cartoonists made fun of it. The painting now hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has been seen by millions and today barely raises an eyebrow.

The New York Times seemed particularly offended by facets of the Armory Show. It published a lengthy article on March 16, 1913 with the headline: "Cubists and Futurists Are Making Insanity Pay." The words belonged to a painter, magazine illustrator and art critic named Kenyon Cox, who said, among other things, that Cubists and Futurists "simply abolish the art of painting."

The editorial writers at The Times saw something a lot more sinister.

On the same day as the interview with Cox, the newspaper ran an editorial that called Cubism "part of the general movement, discernable all over the world, to disrupt and degrade, if not to destroy, not only art, but literature and society, too . . . [T]he cubists and futurists are . . . cousins to the anarchists in politics, the poets who defy syntax and decency, and all the would-be destroyers who with the pretense of trying to regenerate the world are really trying to block the wheels of progress in every direction."

On March 15, the show was over, headed for Chicago, then Boston. Only one year later, World War I erupted. As the home of the Army's famed "Fighting 69th," the Armory -- no longer the setting for a war over art -- could return to its original mission: preparing soldiers for the art of war.

 

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The Tragic Fire of 1966 - (October 2009)

Herb Brown, an artist who lived and worked in a fourth-floor apartment at 7 East 22nd Street, thought he smelled "something strange." When he checked it out and saw smoke coming from the roof of an adjoining building, he told his wife to call the Fire Department, rounded up his four children and led his family to safety. By that time, the electricity had already failed and the Browns had to grope their way to the street with the aid of a flashlight.

It was a little after 9:30 p.m. on the night of Monday, Oct. 17, 1966. What followed was one of the most horrific fires in New York City history. It took the lives of 12 firemen, the largest departmental death toll in one event in what was then the 101-year-old history of the NYFD, a toll not exceeded until Sept. 11, 2001, when 343 firefighters perished at the World Trade Center.

The blaze leveled the entire block of Broadway between 22nd and 23rd Streets. One of the buildings that rose on that site, the Madison Green high-rise, has a bronze plaque affixed to it recalling the event and on Saturday, Oct. 17, as it has in previous years on the anniversary of the fire, a commemoration ceremony will be held there.

The source of the fire was in 7 East 22nd Street, the four-story brownstone where the Brown family lived and where an art dealer stored highly flammable supplies in the cellar, according to Fire Department documents. A lamp and lampshade business was on the ground floor and many artists' lofts and studios occupied that building as well as adjoining ones. The rear wall of the 22nd Street brownstone abutted a five-story brick building to the north at 6 East 23rd Street, a building that housed a street-level store called Wonder Drug, a site that turned into a death trap.

When firemen arrived on the scene that Monday night, the smoke and flames were too intense at 7 East 22nd to allow entry. Crews went around the corner to 23rd Street and went in through Wonder Drug, where there was much less smoke and fire. They didn't know that the drug store shared a cellar with the 22nd Street building or that a wall in the cellar had been moved to give the art dealer more room. Those flammable lacquers and paint supplies in the basement were now directly beneath the drug store's five-inch-thick terrazzo flooring.

As firefighters headed for the rear of Wonder Drug, they were jolted by a tremendous roar. A 100-square-foot section of the floor had collapsed, plunging 10 men into the inferno below. Two more were killed by the blast of flame and heat that engulfed the ground floor. All told, they left 12 widows and 32 children.

It wasn't until 2 p.m. the following afternoon that the last body was recovered. By then, 300 firemen were at the scene and they all filed softly into Madison Square Park for a silent prayer.

 

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Madison Square Garden - (November 2009)

The original Madison Square Garden was born, appropriately enough, just a whisper away from Madison Square. The site on which it stood had been the southern terminus of the New York and Harlem Railroad, filling the entire block between Madison Avenue and Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South), from 26th to 27th Streets. In 1873, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who owned the railroad, leased the depot to the legendary Phineas Taylor Barnum, who tore down most of the old building, transformed what was left into an amphitheater and called it the “Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome.” Beneath a tent that accommodated 15,000, he presented extravaganzas that ranged from chariot races to waltzing elephants.

Barnum closed down on Feb. 27, 1875, and the space was leased to Patrick Gilmore, a bandleader and showman who converted it into a spectacular space bursting with fountains, statues and exotic plants. He called it Gilmore's Garden. In 1877, the waltzing elephants were replaced by prancing poodles, as Gilmore presented the first Westminster Kennel Club Show. For the next couple of years, there were concerts on summer evenings, horticultural exhibitions, charity balls - and walking races, a portent of things to come.

In 1879, Gilmore's lease expired and on May 22, The New York Times reported that after extensive renovations and at the request of the Vanderbilts, “Gilmore's Garden will hereafter be known as the 'Madison-Square Garden.'” Together with its original hyphen, it made its public debut nine days later with a concert by a 60-piece band.

The Garden popped with pop culture, programs “suited to the demand of most pleasure-seekers in Summer, who do not wish to be called on for any serious mental effort while taking their amusements,” said The Times.
What followed were flower shows; wrestling matches between such stalwarts as Edwin Bibby, the champion of England, and Andre Cristol, “the Tiger of the Pyrenees”; billiard contests; political rallies; and an exhibition of “fine American-bred Durham cattle and fancy sheep.”

There were also six-day “pedestrian competitions,” international race-walking events that drew capacity crowds of 10,000 around the clock, but the Garden was best known as a venue for bicycle races. MSG's position as the nation's preeminent racing arena gave rise to a form of team cycling called “the Madison,” which even today is part of the Olympic Games.

The original Garden was razed in 1889. It was replaced on the same site by MSG II, a magnificent Moorish-influenced building designed by Stanford White. It opened on June 6, 1890 at a cost of $3 million. It was distinguished by a 32-story tower that looked like a minaret, topped by a statue of a fetching Diana the Huntress, wielding a bow and arrow and serving as a weather vane. It was reportedly the country's first nude sculpture in a public place. Diana was created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose body of work includes a fully clothed Admiral David Farragut in Madison Square Park.

In addition to the arena, the Garden boasted a theater, concert hall, swimming pool, shopping arcade and meeting hall. There was also an ornate rooftop restaurant and it was there that White - a notorious womanizer - paid with his life for his earlier dalliances with a teenage model/actress named Florence Evelyn Nesbit, who had gone on to marry the millionaire Harry Thaw. On the night of June 25, 1906, Thaw, seething with jealousy, approached White during a performance of the musical “Mam'zelle Champagne” and shot him to death as the cast was singing “I Could Love a Million Girls.” It was White's requiem.

In its 35 years of existence, MSG II was one of New York's premier showcases, housing dog and pony shows, political conventions, circuses, society balls and sporting events. In 1908, it was sold to a real estate firm with a mortgage secured by the New York Life Insurance Co., and it closed on May 5, 1925. Its third incarnation bowed the followed November on Eighth Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets. In 1968, the Garden moved south to its present location, the Penn Plaza complex. After MSG II was razed, New York Life asked architect Cass Gilbert to design a new headquarters building on the site of the original Garden. It was completed in 1928. Although the waltzing elephants and the six-day cyclists are long gone, some vestiges of showmanship remain in the mammoth limestone skyscraper: 72 gargoyles and a great golden pyramid. Barnum would be beaming.

 

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Booth's Theatre - (February 2010)

From his perch 20 feet above the sidewalk at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street, William Shakespeare stares impassively at the multitudes below. The Bard is unnoticed by all but a few, but once upon a time, this corner was his turf. His bust is mounted on the Sixth Avenue façade of the Caroline, an apartment building that now occupies the site of Booth's Theatre, once the most important venue in New York City for the production of Shakespeare's plays and, for a time, the best-known playhouse in the Flatiron district.

That time was the late 1800s, when West 23rd Street was the heart of Manhattan's thriving theatre and entertainment district, and Booth's, which opened on February 3, 1869, with a production of "Romeo and Juliet," was hailed by The New York Times as "the pride of the City, the resort of the educated, a school of art, a refined recreation and a benign contrast to the perverted amusements which have too long degraded the public taste."

Booth's was just one of many choices in the Flatiron's culture cluster. There was the Madison Square Theatre, at 24th Street and Fifth Avenue with its drop curtain from Tiffany's and a ventilation system that blew air over cakes of ice, making it the world's first air-conditioned theatre. The New Fifth Avenue Theatre at 28th and Broadway was noted for its productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Vaudeville and a beer garden characterized Koster & Bial's mini-empire on Sixth Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets. One of the Koster & Bial buildings, an 1886 red-brick structure, remains at the corner of Sixth and 24th, the names of the theatrical producers still prominent on its pediment beneath the words "The Corner."

In the late 1870s, on the east side of Madison Square Park, Gilmore's Garden, the precursor to Madison Square Garden, was presenting summer concerts. A couple of blocks away, where the Met Life Building now stands, the Lyceum Theatre -- under the personal supervision of Thomas Edison -- became the first playhouse to be lighted entirely by electricity. And on 23rd, just steps away from Booth's, where thespians waxed poetic over Shakespeare, was the Eden Musée, whose proprietors, influenced by London's Madame Toussaud, were presenting the poetry of wax.

Largely because of the man who built it, it was Booth's that seemed to attract the most public attention. Edwin Booth was matinee idol material, described by The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre as "the finest American tragedian of his time." He was also the older brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1863, two years before that tragic event, Edwin had become the manager and lessee of the Winter Garden Theatre on lower Broadway, shifting it from burlesque and musicals to classical drama. For the next few years, he staged Shakespeare there, but on a Saturday morning in March 1867, fire destroyed the Winter Garden. Booth, who lived at 16 Gramercy Park South -- now the Players Club -- set his sights on 23rd Street.

He built a theatre at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue at an unprecedented cost of $1.5 million. It was designed by architect James Renwick Jr., whose works include St. Patrick's Cathedral and the Smithsonian Institution, and it was considered the finest theatre in the land. Built of granite in an ornate Second Empire style, it incorporated a forced-air heating and cooling system, hydraulic ramps that raised vertically moving platforms to enhance scenery changes, and a device that allowed the house gaslights to be extinguished or lighted simultaneously during performances. It seated almost 1,800, with standing room for another 300, and boasted seven entrances on 23rd Street and another on Sixth Avenue.

Demand for the Booth's opening-night was so intense, an auction was held and tickets were limited to four per customer. "Prices obtained for some of the boxes and orchestra chairs were remarkable and have seldom been equaled in this city," reported The Times. The best box went for $125, while orchestra seats ranged from $3 to $25.50, and balcony chairs from $1 to $8.

Despite the hoopla and the quality of the productions, Booth was able to keep his theatre going for only five years. Poor management forced him into bankruptcy during the nationwide financial panic of 1874. Others took over until 1883, when the building was razed to make way for a McCreery's department store that eventually became a parking lot and then the Caroline. Ironically, the Booth's last production, like its first, was "Romeo and Juliet." The star was the patriarch of another distinguished family of the American theatre. He was born Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blyth, but became better known as Maurice Barrymore.

 

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Murder on 23rd Street - (April 2010)

On the morning of July 30, 1870, readers were treated to the following passage on the front page of The New York Times:

"A murder more atrocious and more shocking than any recent crime, was committed during the early hours of yesterday morning, in the princely mansion of Mr. Benjamin Nathan, who fell under the hand of the assassin at No. 12 West Twenty-third Street."

It was a sensational case, filling newspapers for weeks, not only here but also in Europe. And it was a murder made even more scandalous by the prominence of the victim, the brutality of the killing and the scene of the crime. At the age of 56, Benjamin Nathan was one of New York's most prominent citizens: a former vice president of the New York Stock Exchange; a past president of Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States; and a founder of the Jews' Hospital, which later became Mount Sinai.

He lived in what was regarded as one of New York's most tasteful homes in one of the most fashionable parts of town, a high-stoop brownstone just west of Fifth Avenue. It is still there. Today, a Qdoba Mexican Grill is at street level and the side of 200 Fifth Avenue is across 23rd Street, but in 1870, the Nathan brownstone faced the white marble façade of the elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel and stood back-to-back with the home of Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. Next door, at 14 West 23rd, was a brownstone owned by a family named Jones, whose young daughter Edith would become better known as Edith Wharton.

Little Edith was eight years old at the time of the murder, traveling in Europe with her family. Otherwise she might have been awakened by the shrieks coming from the Nathan brownstone in the early hours of July 29. Just before dawn, Patrolman John Mangam of the 29th Precinct was making his rounds along 23rd Street when he heard the screams of two agitated young men, both still in their nightshirts, calling to him from the stoop of the Nathan home. They were two of Benjamin Nathan's nine children, Frederick, 25, and Washington, 23. They summoned Mangan inside, and there, up one flight of stairs, lay the savagely beaten body of their father. The apparent murder weapon was discovered almost immediately, a heavy iron bar called a carpenter's dog, about 18 inches long with the ends turned at right angles. One end was caked with blood and gray hairs.

The brownstone had been half empty that night. Others in the Nathan family were at their country home in Morristown, N.J., and aside from Benjamin and the two sons, the others in the house were Anne Kelly, the housekeeper, and her son, William. The immediate prime suspect was Washington, a reputed ne'er do well who often quarreled with his father about the way he conducted his life, and who was said to spend some $30,000 a year on self-indulgent pleasures. Describing his activities on the night of the murder, he told police he had spent three hours being entertained at a maison de joie at 104 East 14th Street.

An inquest followed, rewards were offered, and many theories were put forth, but in the end, no one was ever charged with the crime. It remains unsolved. One supposition that seems to have lasted, however, has to do with Benjamin Nathan's brother-in-law, a well-connected judge named Albert Joseph Cardozo. Politically powerful, closely allied with the notorious Boss Tweed and already implicated in a corruption scandal of his own, Cardozo "took charge" of the investigation. According to many accounts, he did all he could to impede it, fearing the emergence of "unseemly" facts that might hurt his political career and doing all he could to bury those facts.

It is ironic that Cardozo and his wife, Rebecca, only two months before the murder, had become the parents of Benjamin Nathan's newest nephew, a boy who was not only named for him but who later became one of the most distinguished Associate Justices in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court: the honorable Benjamin Nathan Cardozo.

 

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