Big Fish, Little Fish

Battery Park’s Castle Clinton was a fort, a popular entertainment complex, and an immigration depot before the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White transformed it into the New York Aquarium in 1896.

Sept. 26, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin.

The Aquarium’s beginnings were modest, but under the direction of zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend it became one of lower Manhattan’s biggest attractions. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on its latest acquisitions, including the first display of live piranha (here spelled paranha) in America:

When the Aquarium opened it was marvel of late 19th century technology; its enormous glass tanks and pools — holding more than 300,000 gallons of water — were controlled by an elaborate behind-the-scenes operation that ensured each species had the right kind of water conditions and food to survive, at least for awhile; the Aquarium in its early days, like the Central Park Zoo we visited recently, displayed its creatures as curiosities in decidedly unnatural surroundings…

DE-NATURED…In the New York Aquarium’s early days, fish and other aquatic animals were displayed in glass tanks that lined the out walls as well as in concrete ponds below the expansive trussed ceiling. If this rendering is accurate, then these creatures, especially the whales, had miserable, short lives. (thebattery.org)

…and this is a promotion for the Aquarium you would not see today…

…and here are a few images from the early years…more than 100 years old but still not easy to look at…

DRY-DOCKED…these are images used on postcards to promote the Aquarium — the black and white ones are from 1909, the color image circa 1925-30. Clockwise, from top left, Aquarium worker poking at a manatee with a stick (yeah fella, they’re not happy, and probably dying); a crocodile gets some dinner; image common from yesteryear of a child (or groups of children) sitting on a hapless turtle or tortoise; seals in a pool that contained water but nothing else remotely similar to their natural environment. (nyheritage.org)

…it’s easy for us to pass judgment on the unfortunate actions of our forebears, but to his credit Charles Haskins Townsend, director of the Aquarium from 1902 to 1937, advocated for bans on whaling and constantly worked to improve conditions at the Aquarium…

POPULAR DESTINATION…Whether folks were visiting the Aquarium or jumping on a riverboat or ferry, Battery Park was a place to go in the early 20th century. Top and bottom right, exterior and interior views of the Aquarium. Bottom left, the care and feeding took place behind the outer walls. (wcsarchivesblog.org)

…and Aquarium staff tried their best to keep fish alive during relocation, even using train cars specially designed for the purpose…

(Popular Mechanics 1931)

…once at the Aquarium, teams were ready to put the animals into their proper places…

LONELY NO MORE…Paddlewings, the lonely penguin apparently famous enough to be mentioned in the “Talk” piece, is pictured at right in this 1931 article. (Modern Mechanics, August 1931) click to enlarge.

The end came for the Battery Park aquarium when NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses proposed construction of the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel under Castle Clinton. Moses also thought the aquarium was an eyesore, and had it demolished in 1941…

(thebattery.org)

…preservationists managed to stop the demolition before the walls of Castle Clinton were razed. It is now a national monument…

Castle Clinton, circa 1970s. (Flickr)

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Flying High

Attitudes toward drunken driving — or drunken flying — were very different 89 years ago. Case in point was this “Epitaph” written by Morris Markey marking the passing of Carter Leigh, who carried the air mail while flying under the influence (Reginald Marsh contributed the portrait) …

 *  *  *

Exit, Stage Left

The glitzy showgirl revues continued on Broadway with George White’s Scandals, which featured such headliners as singers Ethel Merman and Rudy Vallée, and hoofer Ray Bolger. Reviewer Robert Benchley wrote that the show gave him “the feeling of having a good time,” but the same could not be said for Mae West’s The Constant Sinner; Benchley thought the glare of West’s stardom upstaged the play itself:

SIMULACRUM OF A GOOD TIME…Robert Benchley questioned his own enjoyment of George White’s Scandals of 1931; from top, left, program from the show; singers Rudy Vallée and Ethel Merman were popular stars, as were hoofer Ray Bolger (who in 1939 would portray the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz) and actress Luella Gear (photo from the 1934 play Life Begins at 8:40); chorus girls in costume during a Scandals performance. (Playbill/Heritage Auctions/gershwin.com/Pinterest)
A STAR IS WORN…Benchley thought Mae West upstaged herself in The Constant Sinner. At right, West in a publicity photo with co-star Walter Petrie. (Playbill/Heritage Auctions)

 *  *  *

Play Ball

Sports columnist and occasional New Yorker contributor Ring Lardner enjoyed poking fun at revered institutions including Morris Markey’s “A Reporter at Large” column. Lardner rambled through several subjects but mostly reminisced about great baseball players of the past. Two brief excerpts: 

BEDTIME STORIES…the great American sports writer and satirist Ring Lardner, circa 1930. (Chicago Tribune)

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From Our Advertisers

We have yet another somewhat misleading ad from the makers of Lux Toilet Soap featuring an older actress who looked deceptively young for her age…

…the Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova (1879 – 1945) was actually 52 years old when this ad appeared, but the photo featured at left was taken in early 1923, when she was 43, so in a sense the ad was somewhat truthful…

Photo of Alla Nazimova taken by Nickolas Muray on Feb. 1, 1923 for Vanity Fair magazine. (Conde Nast)

…Park Avenue would never be the same with the opening of the grand Art Deco Waldorf Astoria, at 47 stories and 625 feet, it was the world’s tallest hotel from 1931 until 1963…

…nor would the skyline at Central Park West be the same with the addition of Irwin Chanin’s modern “Majestic” and “Century” apartments that featured GE refrigerators sold by Rex Cole, who himself was keen on architecture and design…

…and who hired Raymond Hood to create distinctive refrigerator showrooms in Manhattan, Brookyn and Queens…

Rex Cole Showroom in Flushing, Queens, crowned with a replica of the GE refrigerator’s disintictive “Monitor Top.” With their spare, open plan, the modern showrooms were ahead of their time. (Museum of the City of New York, Photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, 1931)

…on to our cartoonists, we have Chon Day at ringside…

Kemp Starrett eavesdropped on some science-minded shoppers…

Garrett Price gave us a maid’s refreshing perspective on a game of chess…

Helen Hokinson found some serious talk among the younger posh set…

…and we end with another from Garrett Price, and the challenges of renting a room near Times Square…

Next Time: The Coming War…

 

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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.

4 thoughts on “Big Fish, Little Fish”

  1. I must be the only person reading this blog.Anyway ,for years Castle Clinton was closed to the public which made me even more curious about it inside.But when I finally was able to go inside it there was nothing in there but bare walls.I think all the good stuff was spirited away years ago,thats why it was closed for so long.It think its other name might be Castle Garden but not sure.

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    1. You are right Chris, it was known as Castle Garden in the 19th century. After Castle Clinton was decommissioned in 1823, it was turned into a public amphitheater and renamed Castle Garden. In the ensuing years it was enlarged to include an expansive ceiling, under which were held various arts and entertainment events. After 1855 it was used an immigrant processing center. Actually I have a lot of readers, but not a lot of comments. However, they are always welcome!

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