Knickerbocker Junction

In the last post we briefly looked at changes that were coming to Fifth Avenue as it made a transition from a place of high society residences to high society commercial interests.

The May 2, 1925 “Talk of the Town” noted that “New York is no longer the beginning and ending of all things social,” as Fifth Avenue town houses were rapidly disappearing as more of the wealthy elite were building country estates in Tuxedo, Newport or Long Island.

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May 2, 1925 cover by Margaret Schloeman (New Yorker Digital Archive)
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One Sutton Place (city realty.com)

For those remaining in the city, the trend was toward smaller dwellings that didn’t require large staffs, including apartments in locations such as the new Sutton Place.

There were some hold-outs, including Charles Schwab. Although he kept a suite at the Ritz and his wife lived in a “palatial” residence in Loretta, Penn., he nevertheless employed “a full staff of servants” at the “great gray pile with the quaint statue of a steel puddler on the lawn.” This 75-room “pile,” constructed 1902-1906, occupied an entire block between West End Avenue and the Riverside Drive, Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth streets.

Aerial View of Charles M. Schwab Mansion
Charles Schwab’s “great gray pile…”
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…replaced by the Schwab House apartments in 1948. (Top image, nyc-architectute.com / Bottom, street easy.com)

Schwab made his fortune in steel, and was the first president of the U.S. Steel Corporation (He was not related to Charles R. Schwab, founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation, but was the grandfather of Charles R. Schwab the discount broker). After Schwab died in 1939, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia turned down a proposal to make the mansion the official mayoral residence, considering it too grandiose. It was torn down in 1948 and replaced by the Schwab House, an 18-story apartment building.

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The Astor Ballroom could hold 1,200 people. (thegildedageera.blogspot)

“Talk” also reported that one of old society’s grand gathering places, the Astor mansion at 840 Fifth Avenue, was being made available for various charity events that charged ten dollars for a peek at the Astor ballroom, although it was reported most of the visitors were more interested in the dining room than “in the scene of so many brilliant cotillions, of Ward McAllister’s arrogance toward dowagers and of Mrs. William Astor’s imperial rule of a society arbitrarily exclusive.”

The death of famed portrait painter John Singer Sargent was noted in both the “Talk” and “Art” sections, while a feature titled “The New Conquistadors” poked fun at the Babbitt-like promoters of the Florida real-estate boom:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Profiles” noted the passing of Sam Drebin, referred to as the “Fighting Jew.” Written by screenwriter William Slavens McNutt, the piece noted the pat irony of Drebin’s death—that a man who braved untold hazards and fought with more than a dozen armies should die “in the stuffy quiet of a doctor’s office when an assistant gave him medicine from the wrong bottle.”

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A Charles Baskerville drawing of Johnny Hudgins (New Yorker Digital Archive)

For all the sophistication of the early New Yorker magazine, attitudes toward various racial groups, especially blacks, was sadly in concert with the times. The section “When Nights Are Bold” mentions a minstrel performance at the Club Alabam by Johnny Hudgins, noting that the entertainer is “as funny as ever, but the rest of the outfit automatically catalogues itself under ‘fast moving brown skin.’ If you are interested in gold teeth, you’ll find some dressy sets there.”

Hudgins was both a vaudeville performer and part of the Harlem Renaissance. He developed blackface pantomime routines with a jazz trumpet soloist who played vocal-sounding “wah-wah” effects with a plunger mute while Hudgins mouthed the words and performed a comic dance. Fans called him “The Wah-Wah Man.” The French hailed him as the “colored Charlie Chaplin” when he performed in the Parisian Revue Negre that also featured Josephine Baker. Hudgins died in 1990 at age 94.

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Johnny Hudgins and Florence Mills Rehearsing on the Pavilion Theatre Roof in 1926 (elvirabarney.wordpress.com)

African-Americans, however, were not the only ethnic group to singled out for stereotypical depictions, as this title art from the recurring poetry feature “Lyrics from the Pekinese” suggests:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

From the very first issues The New Yorker kept an eye on the city’s dramatically changing skyline as old landmarks fell and skyscrapers soared. R. W. Sexton was the magazine’s early architecture critic (to be followed by notables included Lewis Mumford and Paul Goldberger).

In the section “The Sky-Line,” Sexton wrote about the planned demolition of Madison Square Garden (it was the second facility to bear the name; today’s MSG is the fourth) and how critics, including foreign visitors, often taunted New Yorkers about their “rabid commercialism.”

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Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden. (http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)
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(Left, Museum of the City of New York; right, Wikipedia)

Sexton wrote that the criticism is deserved to an extent, but noted that a structure can only be fine from an architectural standpoint if its value is both artistic and practical.

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Shelton Hotel at 49th and Lexington, which opened in 1924. (New York Times)

Such an attitude would see the erasure of many landmarks, and in some cases whole neighborhoods when Robert Moses entered the picture.

It was also the attitude that led to the destruction in 1963 of one of the world’s architectural wonders—Penn Station—an act that finally prompted New Yorkers to push for preservation laws.

Sexton suggested that “the finest building in New York” was the Shelton Hotel, a building “designed for modern New York, and looks neither to Italy nor to France for it inspiration and example.”

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Hood’s Radiator Building (Copyright friendsofsdarch)

He said the same applied to Raymond Hood’s American Radiator building (opened in 1924). When the Gothic style is employed, Shelton suggested that Bush building on 42nd Street is the finest adaption of the style to a skyscraper.

Shelton concludes that the “set-back laws” for buildings (which prevented tall buildings from blocking all of the light from the street) actually helped to further develop a unique architectural style for the city.

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Bush Building (Real Estate Weekly)

Still standing at 130-132 West 42nd Street, the Bush building, designed by architect Harvey Wiley Corbett and constructed from 1916-18, was notable for its role in the evolution of Times Square and of New York skyscrapers after the 1916 Zoning Resolution.

Advertising was picking up a bit, as we see on the final page of the issue.

It will be a while until we see beer and liquor ads. However, the spate of sparkling water ads in the early, prohibition-era issues suggests that readers were not being encouraged to drink more water, but rather to use it as a mixer for bathtub gin or whatever they could get their hands on in those so called dry years.

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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