Friday, April 27, 2012

Play On: The Naumburg Bandshell

If walls could talk, the Naumburg Bandshell would be New York City’s fiercest chatterbox. It’s been standing between Bethesda Terrace and Central Park’s famed, tree-lined Mall Promenade for almost 80 years, collecting memories while sharing music and words.

Visit the Bandshell early in the morning and you’ll find a brief moment of quiet and stillness.

Nauburg Bandshell Photo from Peterjr196's photostream

During the rest of the day, you’ll find actors rehearsing lines, couples posing for wedding photos, shy folks performing dreamy American Idol numbers for empty benches and, of course, every style of music. You might even find an Upper West Side old-timer recalling the bygone era when the Bandshell attracted wayward teenagers from all over the city like a magnet. All throughout the 70s, the Bandshell sheltered a burgeoning graffiti and skateboarding scene along its curved walls, shaded steps, and hidden corners. It was quite a change from the venue’s early days.

The Naumburg Bandshell was erected in 1923, but its purpose had been imagined long before then. A music-lover named Elkan Naumburg had fallen in love with classical music at the age of 15 when he could hardly afford the cost of concert tickets. Forty years later, as a successful banker, he dedicated a large portion of his hard-earned wealth to insure that New Yorkers would always have access to the city’s finest music.

Photo of Elkan Naumburg from ein Treuchtlinger in New York

Naumburg started hosting concerts in Central Park in 1905 on a wood and cast-iron pagoda-like structure that had been created by one of Central Park’s designers, Calvert Vaux. The concerts grew in popularity over the years, drawing crowds from all facets of New York society. The very wealthy would often arrive by carriage and stay there, enjoying performances from their lofty posts above those on foot. When it became more fashionable to walk to concerts, New Yorkers began mingling more freely, strolling along The Mall during performances, picnicking on the grass, and dancing after sunset.

Photo From the New York Public Library Collection

By 1912, free concerts were beginning to attract thousands of New Yorkers. Naumburg offered New York City $125,000 to build a larger, sturdier structure where operas and symphonies could be performed for the growing crowds. In 1923, a year before his death, plans for the Bandshell had been realized as a neo-classic half-dome carved out of Indiana limestone. Ten thousand people attended the dedication where Naumburg drew attention to the words he’d had inscribed on the building: “To the City of New York and its Music Lovers.”

Ever since then, music and spoken word have boomed from that the Bandshell almost without interruption. Irving Berlin, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington brought their performed there with their orchestras. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., E.B. White, and Fidel Castro addressed crowds from its stage. John Lennon’s eulogy was given there, the words carrying toward nearby Bethesda Terrace and Sheep Meadow.

Despite the Bandshell’s longstanding role within New York City’s cultural life, the structure almost faced the wrecking ball in 1992. Once the neo-classical dome became a congregating spot for New York City teens and assorted ‘Parkies’ during the 1970s the location began falling into disrepair. (Check out this SHORT FILM Sunshine Rebels: Gotham's Lost Tribe, about Central Park’s most unique denizens and the Bandshell at its bohemian peak.) By the 1990s, vandals, drug dealers, and homeless New Yorkers had steadily transformed Naumburg’s gift to the city into a building that New York’s Parks and Recreation Department described as “a maintenance nightmare.”

In July of 1993, efforts to tear down the damaged and neglected Bandshell were blocked by the New York State Court of Appeals citing a city law requiring protection of municipal gifts. The building was saved but remained in a state of “demolition by neglect” until 2003 when the Central Park Conservancy and other preservation groups raised more than $2 million to see the structure restored to its former glory. Today, music plays on at the Bandshell thanks to Elkan Naumburg’s descendants and generous support from the public.

Naumburg Bandshell Photo from

Click here to see the complete Naumburg Bandshell schedule of Summer 2012 events.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

B. Altman and Comapny: The Grande Dame of NYC Retail

Early mornings along New York’s busiest avenues always fascinate me. The city may never sleep, but it does rest, and these pre-sunrise moments offer a glimpse of the city before she’s camera-ready. A diva in repose, if you will. Then the sun rises across the East River, and west-facing windows along Manhattan fracture the beams of light and cast them in every direction. In an instant, it’s as if someone has thrown a switch on a movie set and shouted “Action!” The diva roars to life.

One recent morning, shards of reflected sunrise bounced off a building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, and the effect was so beautiful that it drew my attention away from the flashy Empire State Building across the street. I recognized this shimmering 12-story building from my childhood.

In the 1970s, the building was home to B. Altman & Company, an elegant, glamorous department store that I loved to explore while my mother worked behind the counter for Christian Dior. Given only 20 or 30 minutes at a time to roam, I’d hurry along polished wood and smooth red carpet toward escalators that took me to different worlds on each floor. There were fashions by Halston and Calvin Klein, furs, enormous wedding dresses and ball gowns, and even a furniture section to play in (with each area decorated in things like classic English or chrome and shag). One of the top floors featured a children’s book department that always got me off schedule.

By the 1980s, B. Altman & Company was in decline. It was a stuffy, sad place where shoplifters and gangs of “wilding” teenagers stole merchandise off shelves. By the late 1980s, the store was bankrupt. It closed and was largely forgotten.

Buildings talk, and that morning, shimmering with broken sunlight, the impressive facade of 365 Fifth Avenue hinted at a grander history than the one I remembered. I decided to take a closer look at its past.

It’s hard to imagine now, but the intersection of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue used to be a farm with a stream running across it toward a nearby pond. It wasn’t until late in the 19th century that fashionable New York was drawn to the area by the construction of dignified new buildings. The original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel emerged on 34th Street (on the site that would eventually become the Empire State Building), and soon Fifth Avenue was recognized as New York’s most exclusive shopping district.

In 1906, the B. Altman & Company firm built a store along the east side of Fifth Avenue that stretched from 34th Street to 35th Street.

A few years later, a Madison Avenue portion was added to create a store that would occupy an entire city block. According to a company catalog, it was to be a “source of infinite resources…equipped with every device calculated to contribute to the greatest efficiency of service; in brief, a store of the highest modern order.”

B. Altman & Company interiors were as impressive as the building’s Italian Renaissance exterior.

The department store was known for its grace, proportion, and a “pervasive atmosphere of dignity and refinement.”

It was described as a “luxurious environment which every woman of taste and breeding appreciates.”

Physician’s offices and a 7-bed infirmary were located in the store for the care of employees and for customers who might be “seized with sudden illness while in the establishment.” The store even featured a Mourning Department “generously supplied with every essential of the correct mourning outfit.”

A Delivery Department was housed in a six-story garage on 36th Street where 200 horses, 157 horse-drawn carriages and 85 motor wagons were kept.

For more than 80 years, the magnificent B. Altman & Co. served customers and employees with unequaled courtesy, professionalism and attention to detail. Since its closure in 1989, no store in New York has ever matched its excellence.

The building that once ruled New York City retail is now home to a branch of the New York Public Library and to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

The next time you visit either of those establishments, rewind the decades to imagine the many lifetimes lived by 365 Fifth Avenue.

Share your own recollections of B. Altman's finest days (and read the memories of former B. Altman shoppers and associates) at The Department Store Museum web site. Read this article as it appeared originally at Ask A New Yorker.

* All black and white images were featured in a B. Altman's catalog published in 1914. The logo is from the Department Store Museum.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Upper Manhattan: The Other Upper West Side

New York instinct seems to draw almost everyone on the island of Manhattan to points south of 125th Street for dining, strolling, sightseeing and general fun. Tourist maps of New York City ignore areas to the north almost entirely, ending their detailed grid coverage of the island just past Central Park North. It's no wonder locals forget and tourists skip that stretch of Broadway that extends past Morningside Heights to Washington Heights and beyond.

But isn't anyone asking, "What's Uptown?"

If you aren't a New Yorker who lives in Hamilton Heights and you don't yet know your way around Washington Heights I invite you to join me on this rainy day walk in photos to Upper Manhattan, the other Upper West Side.

You've taken the IRT 1,2, or 3 train to 125th Street and Broadway. You begin walking under steel and rumble toward destinations unknown. Welcome to the neighborhood known on tourist maps as blank space.

Salsa and reggeton spill out of stores as you move past discount shops, beauty supply houses and bodegas. You fall in step with the rhythm of the street.

A cafecito espresso and a sweet from a Dominican bake shop brightens a gray day. Smile, you are twenty blocks in both directions from the nearest Starbucks. 

Broadway may be bleak for blocks at a stretch but look up, above the sad storefronts...

and look far, down the sidestreets. There you'll find proud architecture and whispers of old New York.

Trinity Church Cemetery and The Hispanic Society of America stand atop Manhattan's steepest hill bearing witness to Broadway's long memory. Walk a tombstone garden in one then visit hushed galleries in the other.

The tang of mineral in the air reminds you there's a river nearby. You veer west to gaze at the Hudson churning under the George Washington Bridge. A playground model of it, slick with drizzle, watches for a sunny day.

What's that in the distance? The George Washington Bridge Bus Station designed by Italian engineer, Pier Luigi Nervi, in 1963.

You left quiet streets behind twenty blocks ago by the time you reach 181st Street and Broadway.

Chain stores start to outnumber mom & pop shops but the flavor is still local.

There's much more to see. Art Deco and Dutch architecture on Bennet Avenue, Fort Tryon Park and its gardens, The Cloisters Museum and Bette Midler's parkside restaurant. But what's the rush? You'll be back now that you've discovered just how interesting the blank space on a map can be.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Divine Tragedy: A Philadelphia Icon Ruined

An astonishing sight looms ten-stories above North Philadelphia. The building is abandoned, broken, marred by graffitti yet majestic.

In a part of the city where dilapidated buildings are part of the urban landscape this building stands apart. It commands attention. The winds that blow through its hollows whistle the tunes a different era, hinting at stories that wait to be told.
Photo by Maria Gorshin 

This broke-down palace first came into being as the Lorraine Apartments in 1894, one of Philadelphia’s first high-rise luxury residences. It was designed by Willis G. Hale, a controversial figure criticized for his overly-flamboyant taste and best known as the architect of “Philadelphia’s ugliest building” - a mysterious, neglected structure that haunts Center City to this day.  The Lorraine was converted into a hotel by the Metropolitan Hotel Company in 1900, attracting wealthy clientele through 1948.

Photo by Maria Gorshin

While the Lorraine was running as a whites-only hotel in Philadelphia for five decades a cult was growing in Harlem around George Baker, the charismatic son of two former slaves. Wherever George Baker went to preach his positive thinking sermons, believers flocked and sex and money scandals followed.

Dione Wilson/
By the time he changed his name to Reverend Major Jealous Divine his preaching had developed into a belief system with a name, the International Peace Mission Movement. He had declared himself God and his notoriety had grown well beyond New York City. Songwriter Johnny Mercer attended a sermon entitled “You got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” and later credited the sermon as having inspired one of his best-known songs. It was in 1948 that the Lorraine and the Divine linked. That’s when the International Peace Mission Movement bought the hotel for $485,000 – all cash donations from the Reverend’s followers.
Photo by Maria Gorshin
Reverend Major Jealous Divine quickly became a hero to black and white families in Philadelphia who struggled with poverty, racism, and drug addiction. His sermons inspired believers to find strength and his open-door policy made all feel welcome. He provided his followers with jobs, free food and affordable housing and made sure North Philadelphians always had a place to buy a cheap meal. On the hotels’ top floor, where Philadelphia high society had long gathered for social events, Divine presented free banquets. People from the surrounding community were invited into the grand lobby to buy meals for pennies.
By the time he attached his name to the roof-top sign on the building, the Divine Lorraine had become the first racially-integrated hotel in the United States. Later, as North Philadelphia shifted from prosperous to poverty-stricken, Reverend Divine’s building served as a beacon of hope in the area and his sermons began to promote equality, desegregation and anti-lynching legislation. 

So how did the Divine Lorraine fall into such tragic disrepair? By 2000, the 246-room hotel was due for extensive and cost-prohibitive repairs. It was sold to a New York developer but the building sat unused and unrestored for six years. During that time, David Peace, a member of the International Peace Mission Movement since 1953, lived in the building alone, lovingly tending to it and protecting it from the elements as best he could.
The Divine Lorraine was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2002. In May 2006, real estate developer Michael Treacy, Jr. purchased the building and formed a development team to oversee its use. He assured the historical integrity of the landmark would be preserved and presented plans for 135 condominiums and a restaurant. Instead the interior of the building was scavenged for everything from marble and alabaster to radiators and old mattresses. Afterward, it was left abandoned, windows shattered, the interior exposed to the elements. Today the building is undergoing a process that has been described as "demolition by neglect" - a tragic potential end for a community's icon of promise. 
Read this article in its entirety and view additional photos of the Divine Lorraine at Untapped Cities: