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This page contains both original essays and comments on postcards as well as articles previously published in Metro News, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Metropolitan Postcard Club while I served as editor. Many of these reprinted articles have been enhanced on this website by adding additional content.
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A Belated Greeting
A Christmas postcard was received in the mail yesterday, the 17th of December, by Bernice Martin of Oberlin, Kansas. The card contained an image of Santa along with that of a young girl. While this may not seem to be an unusual occurrence for the holiday season it quickly became a national news story. It seems that the card addressed to Ethel Martin, the apparent Cousin of the sender was postmarked in Alma, Nebraska on December 23, 1914. Ethel had died long ago but her sister-in-law Bernice was still around to receive the card. She was lucky not to have to pay postage due for the rates had gone up after 93 years. The Post Office had been kind enough to add on the difference in makeup postage from the original one cent stamp placed on it. So far there have been no complaints of preferential treatment. The postcard seems to have spent some time lost in Illinois but the local Postmaster did not have any real explanation for its tardy delivery.
The Parsons Legacy
A few years back I came across an encyclopedia of New York City on a bookstore’s shelf. It was a rather hefty volume and I was very tempted to buy it. Afraid that it may be little more than a rehashing of well known facts I looked up the name Samuel Parsons. There was no such entry in the book and so it remained on the shelf. While Parsons is not a household name, not even to the families that reside in his old neighborhood of Flushing, the family’s contributions to this City are many. While few postcards make any direct reference to the Parsons’ name there are scores of postcards that illustrate their mark on New York.
The first postcard I ever saw with reference to this family is a sepia view-card of a residential street named Parsons Boulevard. Samuel Baum Parsons had had acquired a large parcel of land along this country lane between Broadway (now Northern Boulevard) and Sanford Avenue just prior to marrying Mary Bowne in 1806. Mary, a descendent of the famous Quaker John Bowne came from a tradition of ardent abolitionists and with her husband they established an important link of the Underground Railroad on their new estate. The Parsons were a strong community minded family and while Mary founded the Flushing Institute for Young Women, a bold move in that day to teach women to read and write, Samuel took it upon him to beautify the village by planting trees along its streets at his own cost. By 1838 this endeavor had grown into Parsons & Co, a flourishing commercial garden and nursery. Flushing already had a long history in horticulture being the site of one of the first nurseries in America established in 1737 by William Prince. In an effort to stand out above the others, Parsons sent agents abroad to search out exotic species that would appeal to his clients back home. Besides being the first to grow hardy azaleas and rhododendrons he introduced the Pink Dogwood, the Valencia Orange, and the Japanese maple to the United States. It has been said that all of this was done out of love for his community and trees rather than any desire for profit.
Perhaps Parsons’ most interesting find came from a trip he made to Belgium in 1847 where he was shown a Weeping Beech tree (Fagus sylvatica var pendula) on the grounds of Baron de Mann in Beersal. This unusual species was a genetic mutation saved from the saws of woodcutters by the estate’s gardener. This mutant tree could not be propagated by seed as its offspring would grow to look quite normal. Parsons purchased a small shoot from this Beach bringing it back over the Atlantic in a small tin. It took well to its new home in Flushing out living Parsons by nearly a century. Years after the nursery closed this tree continued to grow in a small park not far from the old Bowne house. Despite being declared the City’s first living landmark in 1966 and given a public celebration for its 150th birthday the tree died through vandalism and neglect by 1998. At least that was the year its dead trunk was cut down but we can’t think of a tree’s life in human terms. Unpruned for years its great 80 foot wide umbrella of branches were allowed to hang down to the ground where they took root, and now the cut stump is surrounded by a circle of new tall saplings. Unless you peer into the hollow center it still looks as if the original tree were still there. Likewise all of the ancient Weeping Beeches to be found across the country have come from shoots cut from this one tree.
Silk had been manufactured in America since the 17th century but in the 1830’s its newfound potential for profitability created a sudden craze for sericulture. While would be manufactures concentrated on importing silk worms, Parsons imported their favorite food, 25,000 Mulberry trees from China (Morus multicaulis) that would help produce a superior thread. It seemed that everyone with some spare land began speculating with these trees. Their high demand led to price inflation and Mulberry cuttings began being exchanged in Flushing as a local currency. The price of Mulberries eventually outpaced the profit in silk one could make from them and they began to be uprooted. Within ten years a blight hit that killed of many of the remaining trees and the fledgling sericulture industry died with them. As imports of silk resumed from China the Mulberries brought here proved to be more resilient than first thought for they continue to spread out on their own and they can now be found growing wild throughout the East coast. While this failed venture put financial strains on the nursery, Parsons had more success with another insect based enterprise as he introduced the frost resistant honey bee to the United States.
As the business grew a second nursery was opened to the south in the 1870’s on the heights above and around Kissena Lake where the town cut its ice. The dirt lane that connected these two properties became known as Parsons Avenue, latter renamed Parsons Boulevard. This nursery became the home of many more rare trees including Manchurian Lindens, Featherleaf Beeches, Elephant Magnolias, Katsura, Silverbells, Indian Beans, Amur Corks, Persian Ironwoods, and Bald Cypress. When Parsons died in 1906 this nursery land was acquired by the City of New York for the development of a park. Much of the land was cleared but 14 acres of Parsons’ plantings were left in place. Many of these trees continue to grow today in the neat rows they were left in. Though the core was designated a Historic Grove within Kissena Park many trees have unfortunately succumbed to neglect and abuse, often at the hands of the Park Department. The nursery lands of the original old estate were sold off for housing as the Murray Hill development began to expand. While no great park was created here many of Parsons’ large and rare trees were left behind and some still grace the neighborhood.
Parsons two sons, Robert Bowne, and Samuel Bowne, Jr. continued in their father’s footsteps by working in his nursery. Samuel Jr. became an apprentice under the nursery manager, J.R. Trumpy, from whom he gained much expertise on how to comfortably integrate foreign plantings with native species. These were lessons that would prove of value for years to come. He went on to get a degree at Yale Scientific School in 1862, worked on a model farm in Cayuga Lake, NY, and then ran his own farm in Southern New Jersey for six years before returning to Flushing. Though Parsons was now primarily laying out gardens for estates, he also had the good fortune to be able to work with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux who were ordering plantings through Parsons & Co. for the Central and Prospect Park projects. The Parsons family had become an integral player in the construction of these parks for their practical knowledge was instrumental in choosing the right plant for the right location. They were able to transform the designs of Olmsted and Vaux into reality. Visiting these lush green parks today it is easy to forget how barren these landscapes once were. Over a period of twenty years tens of thousands of trees and millions of smaller shrubs and plants representing at least 1400 different species were hauled in. We owe much to the way these two great parks look to Parsons’ past insights.
Soon after the completion of Central and Prospect Parks, Olmsted, Vaux & Co. dissolved their seven year long partnership, and in 1879 Vaux took on a new apprentice, Samuel Parsons, Jr. Both Olmsted and Vaux had reservations about the the young Parsons’ abilities but with more training they saw him as their natural successor. While Parsons learned much about Vaux’s philosophical approach to landscape design, he in turn was able to contribute many insights in regard to gardening. When Vaux was hired by the New York City Department of Parks as a landscape architect he insisted his entire company be involved and the young Parsons came along with him to become Superintendent of Planting. Parsons’ good work had led him into full partnership with Vaux by 1884 and a year later he was appointed the Superintendent of Public Parks. Both worked together designing and redesigning a number of small city greens along the lines of the then popular Parisian squares including Abigdon and Jackson Square, Canal Street, Christopher Street, Duane Street, Colear’s Hook, Jeanette, and Mulberry Bend parks. Mulberry Bend (renamed Columbus Park in 1911) had been the heart of the City’s notorious Five Points. With almost 6,000 people living an area about the size of one city block, the population density of this slum was nearly fifty times higher than the average Manhattan neighborhood is today. Largely through the efforts of urban reformer Jacob Riis this grim breeding ground for crime and disease was demolished in 1895 and within two years Parsons and Vaux had constructed a new park in its place. The strong belief in the restorative power of nature at this time would lead to a series of other tenements being seized by the City and replaced with parks.
Morningside Park was one of Parsons and Vaux’s larger collaborative projects. Olmsted had made the first plans for this park back in 1873 but nothing had ever come of it. Tammany Hall had been unreceptive to Olmsted’s ideas on how to create a more livable city and he had moved on to Brookline, Massachusetts. But with Vaux’s insistence Olmsted returned to finish his old abandoned project. All three would work together on the park’s redesign and construction in 1887. The high cliffs within the park proved to be its most challenging feature but a series of well engineered pathways put this formally unusable terrain to good use. The original plan had also called for the construction of a pond beneath these cliffs. Parsons proved to be persuasive when it came to removing the water features he felt it would look too unnatural for it was never built.
Parsons also continued to make improvements in Central Park without disturbing the integrity of the original Greensward plan. Ladies Pond (no longer in existence) near West 77th Street was popular in winter, reserved for the pleasure of unaccompanied female skaters. But in summer its stagnant waters had become the center of public fears regarding malaria breeding mosquitoes. In 1883 Parsons narrowed the pond and straitened its edges eliminating much of the accumulating algae that generated the panic. In general the Park suffered from poor drainage due to substandard work and materials when it was built leaving many areas flooded and some reverting back to swampland. Parsons would spend much of the 1890’s remedying these problems often at the expense of a more natural look. These were his largest single alterations until 1904 when he convinced the City to provide funding to plant 2000 more trees to replace those that were sick or dying.
But perhaps Parsons greatest achievement is not what he added to the park as much as what he kept out. After President Grant died in 1855 Mayor Grace of New York offered the family their choice of any park in the City to locate his burial site. Grant had lived out his last four years in New York but but other cities also laid claim to him and vied for this opportunity. This generous offer was sometimes looked upon as an unfair enticement more for the aggrandizement of the Mayor than Grant. The south end of Central Park Mall was considered the most viable site to build Grant’s tomb but Parsons helped persuade the family to reject it in favor of a more suitable location along Riverside Drive. While Parsons felt this type of structure was unsuitable for any park, it would disturbed as little parkland as possible if built here and he drew up plans to accommodate it. Parsons would spend most of his entire career with the City fighting against the intrusion of statues, eateries, and various other concessions in Central Park. He helped thwart plans to enlarge the Central Park Menagerie in the 1890’s ensuring that any further expansion of the zoo would take place in the Bronx.
General William Tucumsheh Sherman had been New York’s most famous resident when he died in 1891. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, this nation’s most preeminent sculptor was quickly commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce to create an equestrian statue of the General. Charles McKim who was designing the base for the statue insisted it be placed near Grant’s Tomb, a neighborhood where McKim was coincidentally speculating in real estate. Neither the family of Sherman nor Grant liked this idea and Parsons once again had to fight to keep it from being erected on the Central Park Mall. Parsons had found an unexpected ally in Karl Bitter, An Austrian sculptor who arrived in the United States from Vienna in 1889. He too worked on many public commissions but was adamantly opposed to placing monuments in public parks The north side of Grand Army Plaza at the southeast corner of the park had been another rejected site for Grant’s Tomb but was now finally accepted by all parties for this monument. When the statue was raised in 1902 Saint-Gaudens demanded the removal of trees to better show off his masterpiece, but despite his fame he made little headway against Parsons who did little more than trim some branches. It was Bitter who who would finish the plaza in 1916. At this time the Sherman statue was moved 16 feet to a more visible spot to compliment Bitter’s Pulitzer fountain to its south.
Parsons and Vaux had worked previously with McKim in 1888 when the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was chosen to design and build a large memorial arch at Grand Army Plaza outside Prospect Park in Brooklyn. While this two year project ran rather smoothly they came into disputes with Parsons once again in 1889 when designing the great arch for Washington Square. Even though the original arch of wood and plaster over Fifth Avenue was so popular to inspire a permanent replacement in white marble its construction proved to be less than easy. While McKim, Mead and White are often given sole credit for this great monument to George Washington it took six years of negotiation and planning with Parsons and Vaux in regard to its final placement and the greater design of its surroundings before all details were finally approved.
Vaux had continued to collaborate with Olmsted on other projects over the years but they were all outside of New York. But in 1892 Vaux and Parsons planed one last large project together to extend the East River Park (now Carl Schurz Park) above 86th Street. The City’s finances did not allow this project to be completed for many years, but they were eventually able to add extensive new plantings, bridges, walkways, and a new seawall with a riverside esplanade. The Park’s size more than doubled as it expanded to include the lands surrounding Gracie Mansion.
Three years after Vaux’s death in 1895 Parsons, Jr. was promoted Landscape Architect for all of New York City. He continued to do much work redesigning existing parks, especially in the face of growing mass transit needs. New subway complexes required the rebuilding of Union Square and City Hall Park. This did not only entail new plantings and pathways but the redirecting of surrounding traffic patterns and the design and building of new structures such as subway kiosks. The large above ground pedestrian walkway connecting City Hall Park to the Brooklyn Bridge was constructed at this time.
Union square underwent even more changes. The most noticeable was the relocation of the equestrian statue of George Washington that had stood in the middle of the intersection at the southeast corner of the square. It would now face south looking down Broadway from a small plaza within the park. Another large space for public gatherings was was also created on the north side of the square, a purpose it still serves today. Though the entire park was demolished in 1928 to create a more extensive underground transportation complex it retained much of Parsons’ basic design when it was rebuilt once again.
Another major undertaking was the design of the Dutch Colonial Garden at Van Cortlandt Park in 1903. It was constructed in a marshy depression just south of the colonial mansion at the request of the National Society of Colonial Dames who were then running the manor as a museum. It did not only consist of a complex variety of shrubs and trees supplied by Parsons & Co. but the formal setting would be surrounded on three sides by a series of canals that drew water from the nearby lake along with connecting paths over foot bridges and a central fountain. A small triangular rose garden would lie beyond. It was so well received that reviewers stated a visit to this garden will surpass expectations.
The Dutch Colonial Garden became a clear showcase of Parsons’ principals put into action. Unlike other park designs the formal nature of this garden required a large amount of different plant types. Flower beds were carefully arranged within each of the garden’s four quadrants according to height and grouped to provide color throughout the growing season. The flowers were backed by a wide variety of evergreens while native rhododendrons, azaleas and dogwoods were planted along the canals. The garden itself was punctuated by Weeping Birches and Ash trees.
Open areas used for recreation had dotted the City’s landscape for decades without any supervision or maintenance. But by 1905 as the public became more reform minded their pressure finally gained enough momentum to force the City into maintaining these long neglected areas. Parsons quickly got to work adding them into the park system and making major improvements. The most notable of these new designs were Seward, Jefferson, and De Witt Clinton Parks. Seward Park was not originally a play area but an overcrowded slum. As with Mulberry Bend these tenements were condemned and in 1903 the new park received the City’s first planed playground. While Parsons did not confuse playgrounds with parks he still tried to keep as much of these areas as green as possible. Perhaps this vision was too idealistic as most plantings got trampled underfoot and most playgrounds have since succumbed to being largely paved over. While many changes have been made over the years most playgrounds still bare Parsons’ tell tale trademark of being ringed with trees.
The rugged terrain of uptown Manhattan caused large tracks of land to go undeveloped. Places unsuitable for housing became gems in the City’s park system after Parsons got to work on them. He had learned a great deal working with Olmsted and Vaux on the steep slopes of Morningside Park and now he applied these lessons to Riverside Park, Colonial Park, and High Bridge Park with its Speedway. The greatest challenge began in 1906 from an especially large endeavor, the three year construction of St. Nicholas Park in Hamilton Heights. A series of pathways were laid out over this nearly shear cliff that had completely separated two neighborhoods. Even while being a feat of engineering the paths and stairs was designed to lay practically hidden leaving the park with a natural appearance.
Not all rough terrain lay in upper Manhattan for one of the highest points in Brooklyn, Sunset Hill rose steeply above the growing immigrant communities forming around the Bush Terminal along the City’s waterfront. Land was acquired here between 1891 and 1905 to build a park and Parsons took on this project as well. Though many evergreens and shrubs were planted, especially near a man made pool, it received uncharacteristic items such as a large shelter house, a carousel and a golf course. In 1935 Sunset Park, like many other city parks was completely rehabilitated by the WPA, which removed all of these features. Only the sweeping views to the west remain.
As the City’s new subway line was extended to the Upper West Side via Broadway the massive excavation required for its construction turned this once shady roadway treeless. In 1905 Parsons began removing the promenade that had been placed on the median over the sunken tracts and constructed raised basins filled with top soil in its place. It took five years to complete Broadway Mall that stretched all the way from 59th Street up to 122nd Street. The City however allocated few funds for this greening project and little planting was done. Parsons considered this project unfinished when he left office.
Charles B. Stover, founder for the New York Society for Parks and Playgrounds was appointed Manhattan’s Park Commissioner by Mayor Gaynor in 1910. He quickly established the Bureau of Recreation to help promote his building of playgrounds throughout the city. A new attitude was taking hold that saw parkland as places for people to be actively engaged in activities rather than natural areas for passive enjoyment. Some architects like Ernest Flagg were also espousing notions that a natural park had no place in the City and that Central Park should be sold of for development. Stover soon came into conflict with Parsons who was a link back to the original Park designers. In 1911 Parsons was fired for promoting the interests of a soil supplier but many believed this was just to cover the growing clashes in vision. Though the City’s newspapers attacked Stover so fiercely he was forced to resign, but the trend toward adding recreational facilities would continue. Parsons had been a founding member and Vice President of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1899, later serving as its President twice. Many of its members had worked on Central Park and together they continued to exert influence on keeping major construction projects out of it. This would be of major importance as the Lower reservoir became obsolete and faced replacement with everything from sports facilities to a giant war memorial.
When Parsons left office in 1911 few individuals could claim to have had as much influence over New York City’s parks. But his work did not stop there as he did landscaping for cemeteries, churches, college campuses, and numerous estates, often collaborating with Olmsted. Balboa Park in San Diego, CA, Mountain Terrace in Birmingham, AL, and Albemarle Park in Ashville, NC are just three of his better known out of town designs. In addition to his design work he wrote six books and numerous magazine articles on landscape gardening. Few of Parsons’ contributions to the City remain intact today and some have disappeared altogether over time, but nearly everyone who lives here has been touched in some way by this family’s achievements. These works have been dutifully captured by a great number of postcards whether we realize it or not.
October 14, 2007
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
Published by Arcadia Publishing
I was living in Baltimore when the Ramones released their song Rockaway Beach. I had argued with my girlfriend who thought this was meant to be a generic name for a beach. Like the Ramones I grew up in Queens and I knew it was impossible to offer the name Rockaway Beach generically when it loomed so large over all our lives; for its not hard, not far to reach we can hitch a ride to rockaway beach. While the reputation of Brooklyn’s Coney Island has grown to international proportions the communities and amusements of the Rockaway Peninsular are far less known today. This was not always the case, easily proved by the myriad of postcards that were produced of this area. This eleven mile long strip of white sand was annexed from the Long Island town of Hempstead and added to the lands of Queens County when the five boroughs consolidated into Greater New York in 1898. But its connection to the people of Queens and the City at large go back much further.
In a sense Rockaway is not one place but a series of ten communities, each founded and developed at a different time for different reasons but all sharing this one giant spit of sand. This is the approach taken by Lucev who divides his book into ten chapters to present the history of Far Rockaway, Edgemere, Arverne, Hammels, Holland, Seaside, Rockaway Park, Belle Harbor, Neponsit, and Breezy Point. While it would have been easy to concentrate on the large resort hotels and Rockaway’s Playland, Lucev gives equal shrift to each of these areas. Every chapter is well supported by a number of illustrations, nearly all of which come from postcards with only a handful of maps and photos thrown in to complete the historical narrative. While some captions are a bit general in nature and others a bit antidotal, great care is given to most of them to create very accurate descriptions. I was actually astonished by some of the rich details provided within them. This propels this work far beyond being a mere picture book.
The Rockaways have seen many changes in a relatively short period of time, going from barren beach to high-rise development with a vast heritage as a resort in between. Unlike many other places nearly everything captured on the postcards that illustrate this book have since disappeared. While Lucev passes this off to progress and change being inevitable, I like to see the issues revolving around change discussed on a broader level than are presented here. But when facing my own prejudices I realize this can’t be that book, for the issues involved are far too complicated for a this type of format and what is provided is more than adequate. This book remains an interesting study of the metamorphosis of a part of New York that has seen more change than most. And for the collector of Rockaway postcards or imagery this book is a must for it goes far in creating order among the many neighborhood names and matching old images to modern streets. I’m sure even long time residents of the Rockaways will discover a neighborhood they never fully knew.
Lucev has been writing about the Rockaways since 1980 and is now a columnist and historical editor for the Wave newspaper in Rockaway Beach. His many years of research have paid off in this book with its highly detailed observations and many rare postcards. While not trained as a professional historian or writer, this native of the Rockaways natural love of history and community is so strong it comes through to create a professional work. Even while I wished some parts of the narrative were a bit clearer, I found Lucev’s writing style friendly and down to earth making the presentation of so many hard facts far less dry than they might have otherwise been. His is the voice of this community, giving it the respect that it has rarely seen from City administrators and State commissions, but that is its due.
The Rockaways sells for $19.99 and should be available at most local bookstores. It can also be purchased through Arcadia Publishing:
Honor the Brave Who Sleep
The two girls who stood out on the narrow ninth floor ledge of New York’s Asch Building had crawled there through a broken window in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. From their precarious perch a terrifying sight lay before them as scores of burning broken bodies littered the pavement a hundred feet below. This human carnage consisted of their fellow sweatshop workers, mostly Jewish and Italian teenage girls, some as young as 14. They had all jumped, some crashing with such force that they broke through the iron frames in the sidewalk that let light into the building’s basement. Others that managed to land in life nets just tore through them leaving firemen in tears. Those fleeing the building had to be corralled in the lobby in fear they would get struck by the rapidly falling bodies. The two on the ledge did not want to jump but the flames pressing their backs were now close enough to set them ablaze. They grabbed each others hand for solace and for courage, and stepped off to their cruel fate.
Such a tragedy might have met with little notice if buried deep in the slums of the city but the schmatta trades began filling the streets near Washington Square as wealthier residents moved further uptown. The ten story Asch Building (now the Brown Building) having replaced the birthplace of Henry James was sandwiched between the Square and Broadway making it visible to the throngs heading home from their downtown offices. The smoke was still filling the air as the angry crowd of spectators grew into the thousands in the failing light of day. At first they thought the owners were trying to save burning inventory by tossing it out their windows only to be horrified when discovering that it was burning girls who were falling. All exits but one had been sealed shut in fear that cut scraps of fabric might be stolen from the premises. The single fire escape that existed never really reached the ground and had quickly collapsed under the weight of those attempting to flee because of its flimsy construction. By nightfall of March 25th, 1911 the bodies of the 146 dead had overwhelmed the city’s morgues and the excess were laid out on the charity pier at 26th Street. Until the attack on the World Trade Center this was the worst workplace tragedy to take place in this country.
Just three years earlier in 1909 there was a lockout at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory after the workers there tried to form a Union. Many would be brutally beaten at the hands of the police doing the dirty work for corrupt Tammany politicians. Other garment workers joined with them in a general strike that eventually spread to other cities. Suffragettes that were sympathetic to these voiceless women added to their numbers and supplied badly needed financial support. From the Uprising of the 20,000, as this event came to be known, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) gained enough strength to force some concessions out of their employers. The six day work week was reduced to 52 hours but few companies would agree to address workplace safety. At the time of the fire in 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist factory was still not unionized and all safety demands remained unmet. The tables that held the shop’s 500 sewing machines were bolted down one after the other forming long unbroken rows across the entire floor. This maximized the number of workers in the space but it severely restricted movement. Over a ton of cotton scraps littered the shop that even if swept away would only reveal floor boards saturated in machine oil that constantly dripped from the well greased machines. Sprinkler systems were already in use at this time but they were not installed here being seen as an undue burden that interfered with profit. When the business was offered the services of a well known fire prevention expert to protect their employees, he was rebuffed and told “Let ’em burn. They’re a lot of cattle anyway.” The factory did however provide about two dozen fire buckets creating the illusion of concern, but they were not filled should an actual emergency arise. Any worker who dared complained was made sure to know that their life was simply of no consequence.
Before a year had passed another tragic fire broke out in New York’s Equitable Building on Pine Street. The icy cold temperatures and high winds of that January day severely hampered the efforts of firefighters to bring it under control. The workers who had fled to the roof found themselves trapped there, and all would be consumed by the flames when it finally caved in. Its innovative design had been questioned when built in 1870. It was the city’s first high-rise to have elevators installed, but more importantly its cast iron frame was highly touted as making the structure fireproof. As it turned out, iron in a fire will loose its structural integrity faster than wood will burn. When disaster hit the newer fireproof Asch Building, built in 1901, some doubt should have been cast on these previous assertions, but no further precautions against fire were ever taken. Knowledge is of little use when there is a lack of will.
Three months later on April 14th, 1912 the Cape Race Lighthouse Station in Newfoundland received an emergency distress call from the premiere luxury liner of the White Star fleet. An iceberg had ripped a hole into the side of the unsinkable Titanic and it was quickly going down. While few expenses were spared to provide an opulent atmosphere for the wealthy clientele that were to sail on her, no more safety features were added than those called for by the antiquated codes of the day. She had the exact required number of lifeboats aboard but this fixed number was set at a time when ships were only half her size. Only 706 out of 2206 passengers escaped death in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic that night. Overconfidence in the technology of the day had led to an arrogance that doomed many once again.
Twenty days before the Titanic sank, the first of what would become a yearly memorial service was held by the ILGWU outside of the Asch Building. Police cautioned Union members to stay calm, that violence in the city’s streets would not be tolerated. Most Americans had been unsympathetic to the Unions but now as support grew from a public highly outraged over recent events they would not back down and together they placed great pressure on State legislators. New York’s Factory Investigating Commission held five years of unprecedented hearings into worker safety, but despite public outrage it was still a widely held belief that employers owed nothing to their workers beyond the salary they chose to pay. Both owners of the Triangle Waist factory were acquitted of all criminal wrongdoing but they eventually had to pay out $75 per victim in the following civil suite; just a fraction of their insurance claim. Some victim’s families turned down this blood money outright and a few others thought this sum might be put to good use in purchasing guns to kill the factory’s owners. Cooler heads in the Union would convince them to put their energy into demanding even more reform. These three disasters, all nearly within a year’s time had created a strong sense of betrayal and it aroused the public to the point where lawmakers finally became fearful of ignoring their demands. Buildings that were deathtraps would no longer be tolerated in New York. Under this pressure 26 statutes regarding fire safety were quickly passed. This was followed by new sets of building codes along with laws providing for minimum safety requirements in working environments and programs to compensate workers injured on the job. Implementation was insured through the collective bargaining power of the Unions.
It was only a day after the Titanic went down that a ceremony was held on Water Street for the placing of the cornerstone of what was to become the new home for the Seamans Church Institute. This celebration turned into a somber occasion with many tears shed, for New York was especially hard hit by news of the disaster. As the destination port for the Titanic, many friends and relatives of those aboard were already in town waiting to greet it on arrival. Meanwhile the Institute’s old building on Jane Street was preparing to shelter the Titanic’s surviving crew then arriving aboard the Carpathia, the ship that rescued them. Amidst all the grieving a decision was made that a fitting memorial should be incorporated as part of the Institute’s new structure before it was completed. The Institute’s magazine, The Lookout, stressed the need for a monument, stating that “in a busy, careless city the average person so soon forgets,” so while only a simple plaque had been placed at the sight of the Triangle fire, it only took a week to decide that a more outstanding memorial would crown the roof of the Institute.
The new Seamans Church Institute was designed in a Flemish style by Warren & Wetmore as a tribute to the original Dutch port of New Amsterdam. A lighted tower had been planned all along for the building’s southeast corner to serve as a greeting to all ships sailing into New York Harbor, but the recent decision to dedicate it as a memorial allowed the Society to raise an additional $10,000 through charitable subscription and place it towards the buildings construction. Just a year after the cornerstone was laid, thousands crowded onto Water Street once more to take part in a new ceremony dedicating this lighthouse, a light to guide in the ship that would never arrive. Though built to serve as a memorial, its steady green light was visible all the way to the Harbor’s outer entrance at Sandy Hook Channel, fifteen miles away. This led the U.S. Coast Guard to designate this nine ton copper lighthouse an official guide to navigation.
The Titanic lighthouse shared the roof of the Seamans Church Institute with a number of large sculptured animals reminiscent of the gargoyles of Paris but not nearly as menacing. The tower’s most unique feature however was added to the top of the light’s lantern room. While the peak of most lighthouses are adorned with a lightning rod, the memorial tower had a sixteen foot hollow metal pole attached to it that held a sliding 200 pound bronze ball, four feet in diameter. This odd addition was not ornamental but served as a time-ball so that any ship in port within sight of it could synchronize its chronometer. Many New Yorkers also counted on this strange device to set their own wind up watches for there were few alternatives in these days to ascertain the correct hour. Cables within the hollow shaft would hoist this giant ball to its top where it was held in place by a powerful electro magnet, which was controlled in turn through telegraph lines leading down to the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. Every day since the 1st of November, 1913 the current to the magnet was cut precisely at noon and the ball would slowly slide down the shaft to indicate the hour.
A hundred thousand mourners passed solemnly down the streets of New York before an even larger audience after the Triangle fire but as the years past, the yearly services held at the Triangle and Titanic memorials were attended by fewer and fewer. The tragedies of half a century earlier were fading fast from public memory, and efforts to role back stringent building codes that were hampering the profits to be made from modern skyscraper design were gaining momentum. In 1966 the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey began a massive new project in downtown Manhattan called the World Trade Center. As an Interstate Authority it was not bound to follow the city’s building regulations but vowed to do so anyway to help stymie public concerns. They knew however that the city’s codes were currently being rewritten so that even the highest building in the world would not be required to have any more safety precautions that a six story tenement. The buildings lack of isolated elevator shafts, interior supports, and adequate fireproofing were considered obsolete worries in the face of innovative structural design. It also created more rentable space. The voices of those who questioned the safety of this framed tube design and who wondered if it would be a deathtrap for those who would work there were drowned out by those with money in their eyes, overconfident with modern technology. Today the same code exemptions have been granted to the new tower that will rise on the ruins of the too strong to ever fall Twin Towers.
Wreaths of evergreen were attached to the railings of the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse at every year’s commemorations until the eight sided lantern room was removed from the Seamans Church Institute roof on July 24th, 1968 as part of that buildings demolition. Construction of another modern office tower, 55 Water Street would soon take its place. The lighthouse however was not destroyed but donated by the Kaiser-Nelson Steel & Salvage Corporation to the South Street Seaport Museum, which had just opened the year before. The Seamans Institute still maintains downtown offices but they are greatly downscaled as the need for large dormitory space for seamen has disappeared along with most of the port facilities on Manhattan Island. In 1976 the lighthouse was set out for public display in a small park at the end of Fulton Street near the Seaport’s entrance. Most that walk this way whisk pass it without ever noting its significance. Fewer still read the words that begin “Honor the Brave Who Sleep Where the Lost Titanic Lies.” from the bronze plaque attached to the plain concrete column on which the light now sits. Striped down and devoid of its fine metal detailing, the lighthouse appears as some ill conceived garish eyesore made solely for the attraction of tourists. It does however blend in with the Seaport that has become more of a mall than the historic educational site it was intended to be.
Amongst the words most often spoken at memorial services are, “We gather here least we forget.” Memorials don’t seem to help us remember that which is more convenient to forget, not for long anyway, but for this there is always a price to pay. Back in 1911 over a hundred workers died on the job every day due to unsafe conditions; a number once considered to small to bother instituting safety measures that might infringe on profit. A hundred years latter New York is still full of sweatshops. The faces are different but they are still largely fueled by immigrants, many of them young children. According to the U.S. Department of labor 63% of the city’s garment factories do not live up to the regulations that were designed to protect workers. Legislation paid for in lives is enforced ever more sporadically as arguments are made in the face of high unemployment that Unions be dissolved and safety be compromised if people want jobs.
Today on the sidewalk at Washington Place and Greene the diligent have scrolled the names of each victim of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where they fell. Red roses and carnations have replaced the blood that once flowed into the gutters. Thankfully there are those who can never forget.
August 6, 2007
REVIEW by Alan Petrulis
Columbia University and
Published by Arcadia Publishing
Michael Susi’s new book, Columbia University and Washington Heights is one of Arcadia’s latest June releases. While I always look forward in anticipation to another published volume in their Postcard History Series, I’ve learned to curtail my enthusiasm until seeing the final product. Books in this form whose foundation rests primarily on pictures can be disappointing when too little supporting information is given or if the images are more private in nature than of public relevance. Suzi’s book was not disappointing on either account. The book is broken into seven chapters, three on Columbia University, one on Barnard College, and the remaining three on Morningside Heights. This provides for an excellent balance between understanding the growth of the University alongside the neighborhood it now resides in.
The first three chapters do more than break the campus down into geographical segments. They are arranged to follow the natural progression of its construction from the Low Memorial Library onwards. We are taken through a long intricate journey, step by step, from the original concept to the rise of individual buildings, and ultimately to a fully grown campus. It is interesting to observe how Columbia’s final resulting layout strayed from such well laid out plans. Not only does this book provide a detailed record of the campus’ construction progress, it is a reminder of how things are actually built in the real world, the results often falling far a field from original intent. The chapter on Barnard College is rather short but it is well illustrated and provides many insights into its development. The 200 or so postcards chosen to illustrate this book date from about 1900 through the 1920’s, outlining the boundaries of its timeline. While the narrative connects these images to the earlier midtown campus, the book’s greater relevance is forward looking. With many plans now afoot for the University’s further expansion, the mechanisms of growth remains a timely issue.
Where the chapters on Morningside Heights could have been nothing more than fluff to fill up a book short on content, they instead provide valuable insights into the neighborhood that grew up around the University. A wide variety of sights and events are covered that show the areas diversity while not dwelling excessively on topics that can become off point. The Heights were sometimes referred to as the Acropolis of America, in reference to the many other famous structures that crowned it such as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Grant’s Tomb, St. Luke’s Hospital, and Riverside Church. All these notable landmarks are given their due, but the main focus of these chapters rests on the streets, apartments, and parks that are the soul of any neighborhood and whose inclusion here should be applauded. Even elements of the transportation network as the famous 110th Street elevated curve are touched upon.
Some of the postcards illustrating this book will inevitably be familiar to those who collect cards of the area. The vast majority of postcards however are of images that even a seasoned collector would be hard pressed to admit having seen before. This goes true for both images of Columbia’s campus as well as those showing the Heights. Depictions of old rural farmhouses to George Tomlinson’s airship informed me of places and events I did not know once existed. This is a testament to Suzi’s twenty years of serious postcard collecting combined with his personal affinity to the area, first as a student and now as an officer of administration at Columbia. The captions that accompany these pictures provide real information for which I attach real importance, for even a collector who may own many of these cards may not know the details or significance behind them. This in itself takes this work beyond picture book status. In addition to the view-cards presented are a series of relevant lithographic portraits depicting many of the University’s historical figures. While I admit a prejudice against so many non-views being included within a book about a locale, they have been used here to good effect. The short biographies that accompany these cameos fill in informational gaps that the views alone cannot provide. Together they create a story, propelling it forward as a more cohesive narrative.
Michael Suzi states that this work “is meant to be carried along with you as you explore the nooks and crannies of the university and neighborhood -”. With its many excellent illustrations and detailed narratives it certainly goes far to fulfill this function. While the scope of this book serves a different purpose than the many other more scholarly volumes available on the University I still wish the author had taken his writing a little further. Though it thoroughly documents the many changes to the area I am left wanting to know more about the forces and reasoning behind these changes. I believe a more comprehensive vision could have been simply presented, without the need of adding additional pages. This would have given the reader a clearer understanding of why the Heights developed as it did and not just how. Even so this book remains an important new work in furthering our understanding of Morningside Heights though the unique material that is presented. For anyone interested in the history of Columbia University, Suzi’s detailed approach and scarce illustrations makes this book a must buy. And for those with a just a general interest in New York the book does much to impart a carefully balanced understanding one of the City’s great neighborhoods. This book stands as a document of change making it a valuable addition to any library.
Columbia University and Morningside Heights sells for $19.99 and should be available at most local bookstores. It can also be purchased through Arcadia Publishing:
Whatever Happened to Alley Pond?
Most residents of New York’s Queens County are familiar with the Borough’s second largest park if only by name. But few park goers can tell you anything about its namesake Alley Pond. While some may be familiar with the park’s unnamed kettle ponds, inquiries as to the whereabouts of Alley Pond will most likely be met with blank stares. The question of whether Ally Pond ever actually existed or not can be dispelled by looking at old postcards from which a number of views can be found, but these images will not stir much recognition today.
Long Island’s north shore is characterized by the highly broken hills of the moraine left behind by glaciers long ago. Natural drainage from these high hills cut out a narrow valley in northeastern Queens that became known as Sylvan Alley. As the runoff mixes with natural springs it flows northward as Alley Creek, and soon reaching sea level it spreads out into a fresh water marsh before intermixing with the salty grasslands at the head of Little Neck Bay.
The native Matinecocs (of the hilly land) must have found this area a pleasant place to live. The bay provided an abundance of shellfish that was not only an important source of food but of the quahogs that were greatly valued for the production of sewant (wampum). Chief Tackapusha entered into negotiations with New Amsterdam’s Director Wilhelm Kieft in order to transfer land for settlement on Long Island’s north shore. Thomas Foster was an early recipient of such lands being granted 600 acres of the Alley in 1637. By 1643 most of what is now Queens County was in the hands of the Dutch though the Colony now found itself in a bitter war as a result of Kieft’s attempts to intimidate the surrounding Tribes. Two years later the town of Vlissingen (Flushing) would be chartered, its eastern boundary resting at the fortified stone house of the Foster farm.
In 1656 another settler, Thomas Hicks, took hold of much of the high ground at the head of Little Neck Bay. He set up his home on the eastern shore of Little Madman’s Neck, in the area now known as Douglaston. Hicks constructed a mill on his west bank holdings along a stream flowing down into the Alley from Oakland Lake. The family mansion, The Oaks, would later be built near this site. It wasn’t long before Hicks came into conflict with the few remaining Matinecocs whose concept of property rights differed from his as they never left the lands they sold. Within ten years he forced them off the land he claimed. The many disputes with Tackapousha over land rights would not be resolved until after New Amsterdam passed to the English. In 1684, a year after Queens County was established, Governor Dongan coerced all towns to surrender their charters and prove their titles to land. All claims were settled and deeds given out to both the settlers and individual Matinecocs, but this caused the Tribe to fade into the general population.
James Hodges began operating another gristmill on Alley Creek in 1752, though it is generally believed that the Foster family built and owned it. The millpond it created was called Alley Pond. It was built in response to the growing number of farmers in the area that joined the numerous oystermen who had set up their shacks around the bay. This widely spread out community became known as Matagarison and latter Marathon, a forerunner to Bayside, Douglaston, and Little Neck. During the American Revolution the area was largely populated by those who remained loyal to the Crown or by Quakers who refused to take up arms. Their farms provided shelter and sustenance for the British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries occupying New York City. This made the area a target for Yankee raiders sailing over in whaleboats from the Connecticut shore. The Fosters however were true to the revolutionary cause and paid for it by having the eldest Foster hanged as a traitor. Fortunately his son fought managed to fight off the Hessians and killed one before cutting his father down just moments before death.
The year 1813 brought Wyant Van Zandt to the area after purchasing 120 acres around East Hill from the Hicks family. By 1826 Van Zandt had constructed a causeway over the Alley’s salt marsh, which extended the Flushing and North Hempstead Turnpike Road (now Northern Boulevard) directly to the Bay’s eastern shore. This route bypassed the Alley Road, a widening of a steep Indian trail never meant for teams of horses pulling heavy loads. President George Washington traveled down this old road on his tour of Long Island in 1790. He stopped in at the tavern alongside the millpond for refreshments greeting the small crowd that gathered. A year after the causeway was built the turnpike was extended from its terminus at Roslyn out to Oyster Bay. In spite of the detour the extra traffic brought more attention to the area surrounding Alley Pond, and with the influx of artisans and a blacksmith a community began to flourish. The old wool mill opened by John Baird in 1820 was replaced by Benjamin Lowerre’s general store in 1828. It became the central source of supplies for the surrounding farms and the site of the Alley Post Office. Mail for all of greater Flushing originally arrived here either by stage or small boats sailing up Alley Creek until 1826 when a second post office was built in downtown Flushing.
In 1858 Lowerre sold his general store to his son-in-law William C. Buhrman, and in the following year John Taylor acquired the Hick’s mansion. With only a background in restaurants and hotels Taylor began a commercial plant nursery that grew to major proportions. He eventually had thirty greenhouses for roses and orchids alone. In 1896 a portion of his holdings were put aside for the Oakland Golf Course. Despite the size of these operations it was the Foster family down in the Ally that may have made a larger contribution to horticulture. Legend has it that a visiting British sea captain left a small tree cutting with them, which when mature yielded the first Bartlett Pears in America.
At the turn of the 20th century when picture postcards began to appear the buildings surrounding Alley Pond found their way onto them. Most notable was the still standing Buhrman store and the family’s house facing the pond. Since the distant Bayside Pharmacy published most of these postcards, it gives insight how the Alley long past its prime was still regarded as an important landmark. Buhrman was now catering to passing travelers advertising candy, soda, and even rest rooms, rather than selling farm implements. Even with the Vanderbilt’s new Motor Parkway built just to the south in 1908 the Alley remained idyllic. Its steep slopes held many old oaks and tulip trees that predated the first European settlers, and the new growth around the millpond was already over a hundred years old. But Flushing was no longer the town it used to be. Railroad tracks were laid across the Alley’s marshland in 1866 spurring the growth of commuter communities. Most of Eastern Queens was still farmland but real estate speculators were following the rails and roads leading out from Jamaica. While much of the early development consisted of large estates and houses for the well to do business class that worked in Manhattan, the newer houses that began rising in the fields after 1898 when Greater New York was consolidated and especially after World War One was predominantly for the working class. This sent shivers down the spines of those who feared encroachment on their exclusive communities. In 1929 the Regional Plan Association was formed and they quickly proposed the establishment of large parks to halt the expansion of undesirable neighborhoods. The fear was that if the working class moved eastward the wealthy in turn would be forced further to the east greatly lengthening their commute into Manhattan. The first line of defense was created that very same year when New York City purchased 330 acres of the Alley for the creation of a park, separating Queens Village from the estates of the north shore.
The Regional Plan Association soon found an ally in Robert Moses who was now occupying twelve public offices from City Park Commissioner to chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Moses was looking for a way to connect his Belt Parkway in southern Queens to the Whitestone Bridge leading over to the Bronx. He was only too happy to gain support in destroying parkland by routing a highway through the Alley. Most structures in the Alley had already been removed when the wetlands began to be filled in 1934 for the Cross Island Expressway. By the time construction ended six years later the huge concrete and steel road became a greater barrier between communities than a mere park could ever be. Use of the park was also curtailed and denigrated by this massive structure. As the highway continued northward it covered over the white sandy beach of Little Neck Bay cutting off access to its once quiet shores from the residents of the village of Bayside. Although a thin ribbon of parkland was created on new fill along the waterfront, six lanes of noisy exhaust filled highway are inescapable at its back. The 1950’s saw more intrusions with the amusement park Kiddy City and a neighboring golf driving range rising over newly filled in wetlands. The last of Alley Pond itself disappeared in 1955 under the newly constructed Long Island Expressway. Only a small weed filled remnant situated within the southeast loop of its cloverleaf can still occasionally be spotted.
In an effort to shift blame for the destruction of the jewel that was Alley Pond away from the Regional Plan association, Robert Moses became the favorite scapegoat. But it remains unclear who was using who the most. Never one to let communities rich or poor stand in the way of his grand schemes, Moses may have had little sympathy with the Associations wishes. He looked upon parkland as free construction space for his projects and may have built his road here in any case. They both agreed however on denying the area public transportation as part of a plan to force most of the City’s working class into New Jersey. But as the automobile turned America into a commuter nation their efforts of social control through urban planning went array. In the present reality the original impedes behind many these failed projects are easily obscured and taken in at face value.
In 1974 attempts began at undoing up some of the damage done. Kiddy City was removed and the wetlands started to be reclaimed. While there are plans in the air to restore some of Alley Pond it can never be the sylvan setting it once was now that it lies under heavy traffic. Many of the City’s oldest and tallest trees that survived hundreds of years of settlement remain threatened by highway widening projects. One cannot even begin to recognize the images found on old postcards of this area. They bare witness to a great loss.
Editors’ Addenda: There are many conflicting dates regarding early events in the Alley’s history. The most troubling revolves around Thomas Foster. 1637 is the most common date sited for his settlement on land grant by Director Kieft. Kieft however did not arrive in New Amsterdam until 1638, so either the former Diector, Wouter Van Twiller made this grant or the date is wrong. Thomas Foster, along with Christopher Foster, is also often accredited with owning Foster’s Meadow in western Hempstead. However there is no evidence that these Fosters are the same person. Foster appears to have been a common name on early Long Island and the Fosters of the Alley, Jamaica, Hempstead, and Southampton do not seem to be related to each other, at least by any evidence now known. These problems are in large part do to the early records of the area being lost to fire in 1789 when the Jeremiah Vanderbilt residence was set ablaze by a servant; hung afterwards for the misdeed. Jeremiah was the town clerk for Bayside, and all official records for the area not stored in Albany were destroyed. Compounding the problem is that other accounts were sometimes recorded in retrospect from memories whose clarity may have long passed. While care was given to assign the truest dates to events their accuracy should not be taken as absolute.