Gas Tanks & Towers

Lewis Mumford (1895–1990) is best known as a critic of art, architecture and urban design, but he was unique — especially for his time — in how he approached these subjects, going far beyond aesthetics to consider how things aligned, or mis-aligned, with necessary human qualities ranging from comfort and scale to the quality of our air, water and even diet.

Oct. 22, 1932 cover by Peter Arno.

Returning home from a trip to Europe, Mumford pondered the New York skyline as his ship approached the harbor, contrasting his city’s approach to architecture with what he had seen abroad. He was not pleased:

NOT JUST ANOTHER PRETTY FACE…Lewis Mumford praised the sense of “space, clarity and order” he found in the buildings of Rotterdam — perhaps he was referring in part to Leendert van der Vlugt’s 1931 Van Nelle Factory (top) and H.F. Mertens’ 1931 Unilever office building. (
WELCOME BACK, LEWIS…Manhattan skyline with gas tank, 1932. (

Mumford was among the few in 1931 who saw a bright side to the Depression, since a pause in building would afford American architects an opportunity to reflect on their past transgressions…

Mumford, among others, was regarded as a visionary in urban planning, anticipating the “New Urbanism” of the late 20th century which was proposed as an antidote to the dehumanizing free-market development Mumford rightly feared would degrade the quality of urban life, not to mention its deleterious effects on the natural environment.

Inspired by the Garden City movement in the U.K., Robert D. Kohn (mentioned above) founded the Regional Planning Association of America, which led to the development of some of the first modern zoning standards in the U.S.

MAVERICKS…Robert D. Kohn (seated in light-colored suit) was president of AIA when the association held their convention in San Antonio in 1931. Seated at left is Dr. Aureliano Urrutia, a prominent San Antonio physician who established the famed Miraflores gardens (mostly gone, sadly) in that city. (
Along with Mumford and Kohn, Henry Wright (left) and Frederick Ackerman were strong advocates for zoning laws unsullied by free market forces. Wright (1878–1936) was the brainchild behind the Hillside Group Housing model (described by Mumford below) and he also co-designed Radburn (pictured below) among other projects. Ackerman (1878–1950) became the first Technical Director of New York City Housing in 1934.(

Mumford praised the work of architect and planner Henry Wright (1878–1936), who had co-created a “Garden City” plan for Radburn, N.J. (with Clarence Stein) and had recently produced a proposal for “Hillside Group Housing”…

NICE PLACE, THIS…Apartments around a courtyard in Radburn, a community designed by Henry Wright and Clarence Stein. Stein was an early supporter of bicycle paths. (

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Shining Some Light

Now I’d like to offer a tribute of sorts to the almost-forgotten Maddy Vegtel, a writer known in 1920s and 30s for her Vanity Fair profiles (she penned “Blonde Venus and Swedish Sphinx” — about Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo in the June 1934 issue of VF) and articles about her European roots (Holland) in the New Yorker from 1926 to 1956. She particularly enjoyed skewering smug upper middle-class types. Here is her short piece, “Paris.”

…and for the record, the opening spread of Vegtel’s 1934 Vanity Fair piece on Garbo and Dietrich…

(Vanity Fair)

 *  *  *

Play It Again

Robert Benchley was back to writing stage reviews, this time taking in the drama I Loved You Wednesday (at the Sam Harris Theatre) featuring Frances Fuller and Humphrey Bogart — Bogie appeared in a number of stage productions before becoming the familiar hardboiled antihero of Hollywood’s golden age.

Bogart began his stage career in 1921, delivering one line (as a Japanese butler!) in the play Drifting. He would go on to appear in 17 Broadway productions between 1922 and 1935, and would make his screen debut in 1930 in A Devil With Women.

HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KID…Francis Fuller and Humphrey Bogart in a 1932 stage production of I Loved You Wednesday. It ran for 63 performances at the Sam Harris Theatre. (Pinterest)

 *  *  *

Off-white Christmas

In the midst of wading through poetry submissions to the New Yorker, E.B. White allowed his thoughts to drift toward the coming winter…

…and what would likely be his winter scene in Manhattan…actually this is a screenshot from the 1945 comedy Christmas in Connecticut, and this was the view through writer Elizabeth Lane’s (Barbara Stanwyck) window, which was actually part of a Hollywood sound stage…


 *  *  *

Seeing Red

Along with the poetry submissions, E.B. White also received a letter from the local Communists urging the New Yorker to join hands with the oppressed classes. White, however, found that class divisions weren’t always what they seemed…

FREEDOM AND FREE STUFF, PLEASE…About 10,000 Communists and unemployed march on New York’s City Hall in 1932. (NY Daily News)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

While the Communists marched for jobs and free milk, another class of New Yorkers pondered this ad for a V-16 Cadillac…

…in my last post we saw how RCA’s mascot “Nipper” enjoyed the newfangled “bi-acoustic” radio…

…and so General Electric answered in the Oct. 22 issue with a two-legged expert, who perhaps didn’t have the same range of hearing as a terrier mix, but was nevertheless blessed with “keenly discriminating ears”…

Samuel Lionel “Roxy” Rothafel’s greatest achievement was the Roxy Theatre, which opened March 11, 1927. He was also behind the opening of Radio City Music Hall, home of the Roxyettes (later renamed The Rockettes). Rothafel (1882–1936) is also the great-grandfather of actress Amanda Peet

S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel greets wife Rosa Freedman (right) and daughter Beta Rothafel after their return from abroad aboard the S.S. Paris, Sept. 19, 1932. (AP)

…and we continue in the back pages, which included signature ads for various entertainments and an ad for American Airways, which depicted a jaunty young man announcing his plans for “week-ending in Los Angeles”…now read the fine print…in order to “breeze into Los Angeles on Saturday morning,” this fellow would need to depart on Thursday evening, and no doubt experience some bumps along the way…

…here’s a couple of ads featuring New Yorker talent, cartoonists Peter Arno and Helen Hokinson

…Mori was an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village (144 Bleecker Street) that managed to survive Prohibition and most of the Depression before closing in 1937…the building is still there, sans the charm…

A photograph of Mori’s Restaurant taken by Berenice Abbott for the Federal Art Project in 1935. (New York Public Library)

Lois Long had this to say about Mori in her Oct. 29, 1932 “Tables for Two” column:

…on to our cartoonists, beginning with Rea Irvin

…this relatively straightforward cartoon feels like a departure from James Thurber’s usual work…

…and here we have Henry Anton’s first-ever cartoon in the New Yorker (Anton was William Steig’s brother)…

John Floherty Jr. found some racy action among the amoeba…

…while William Crawford Galbraith dialed up the familiar sugar daddy trope…

…and we close with Peter Arno, on firm ground with a bit of his own naughtiness…

Next Time: The Faux Prince…

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.

One thought on “Gas Tanks & Towers”

  1. Ha,people always made fun of Jazz musician Paul Whiteman’s name.
    As in Paul WHITE MAN,-get it? Plus every musician’s stand in his band
    had Whiteman’s bean head painted on the front along with the initials P.W.


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