The Garden City

The last days of winter on the streets of 1920s Manhattan — remnants of snow and slush mixed with coal soot and car exhaust — were quickly forgotten with the advent of spring. The New Yorker (March 26, 1927) turned its attention to more pleasant diversions including the annual Madison Square Garden flower show…

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March 26, 1927 cover by unknown artist.

…and to the people it attracted, rendered in illustrations for “The Talk of the Town” by Alice Harvey…

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Backyard gardens and window boxes also welcomed spring, as did a two-part feature that offered helpful advice to amateur urban gardeners. An excerpt:

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No doubt the writer saw something akin to what we can see in Frances Benjamin Johnston’s rare color photographs of backyard gardens in the early 1920s Manhattan (all photos courtesy Library of Congress):

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Turtle Bay Gardens, 227-247 East 48 Street and 228-46 East 49 Street. View east to common garden.
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George Hoadly Ingalls house, 154 East 78 Street.
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Laura Stafford Stewart house, 205 West 13th Street.
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“Jones Wood” townhouses, north terrace fountain.

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Let’s look at a couple of advertisements from March 26 issue…why fight the crowds on the commuter train? — you could live a life of ease and convenience in the new Tudor City…

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…and perhaps you could afford a car almost as prestigious as a Cadillac…introducing the new LaSalle, manufactured by Cadillac but priced lower to “satisfy that other great market”…

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For industrial design buffs, the 1927 LaSalle in many ways marked the beginning of modern American automotive styling. The LaSalle line, designed by Harley Earl, would be eliminated in 1940, but Earl’s career as the man in charge of design at General Motors would last into the late 1950s.

Earl was a pioneer in auto design, one of the first to use modeling clay to develop forms for cars. He also established an “Art and Color Section at GM,” a radical notion at a time when American automobile manufacturers paid little attention to the appearance of automobile bodies, which were merely engineered for functionality and cost.

Earl also pioneered the idea of planned obsolescence in cars (which he termed “Dynamic Obsolescence”) in which annual model changes were used to induce sales. It was Earl who convinced GM to build a sports car–the Corvette–and it was Earl who also oversaw the introduction of the tail fin — culminating in the 1959 Cadillac — the year he retired from GM.

In the course of just 32 years, Earl’s designs went from this…

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Harley Earl at the wheel of a 1927 LaSalle Series 303 Roadster. (carbodydesign.com)

…to this…

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Harley Earl’s swan song, a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. (photobucket.com)

Next Time: Dinosaurs of Upper West Side…

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Those Jaunty Jalopies

The January 8, 1927 issue of the New Yorker was all over the 27th Annual Motor Show at the Grand Central Palace, both in its lengthy review of the show and the many automobile ads throughout its pages.

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January 8, 1927 (Issue # 99) cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Auto manufacturers discovered early on that cars didn’t need to advance technologically from year to year as long as there were superficial changes–trimmings and such–to dazzle the consumer:

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Artist Helen Hokinson added this touch to the issue devoted to the auto show.
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A 1927 Gardner Model 90 Roadster on display at the 27th Annual New York Motor Show at Grand Central Palace. (gardnermotorcars.com)

Advertisements in the New Yorker ranged from snobbish appeals to Francophiles…

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 3.32.48 PM…to those who might be concerned about safety. Although cars weren’t very fast, they were fast enough to kill, and their plentiful numbers often overwhelmed a city with rudimentary traffic control.

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In his book, One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson writes that New York in 1927 was the most congested city on earth. It contained more cars than the whole country of Germany, while at the same 50,000 horses (and wagons) still clogged the streets. More than a thousand people died in traffic accidents in the city in 1927, four times the number today.

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THE DEATH-O-METER … was a 20-foot sign installed near Grand Army Plaza in 1927. It tallied traffic accidents and fatalities in the borough and reminded motorists to slow down at the traffic circle. (Ephemeral New York)

Traffic control was still in its infancy in the 1920s. Seven ornate bronze towers, 23 feet high, were placed at intersections along Fifth Avenue from 14th to 57th Streets starting in 1922. By 1927 smaller, simpler lights were mounted on street corners and the system of green, yellow and red was generally adopted.

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Bronze traffic signal tower designed by Joseph H. Freedlander at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, 1922. (New York Times)

Keeping with the motorcar theme, the issue also featured a profile (written by Lurton Blassingame) of Walter P. Chrysler, founder of the new car company that bore his name (Chrysler founded his company in June 1925 after acquiring and reorganizing the old Maxwell Motor Company). In just three years a famous New York City landmark bearing his name would pierce the skyline.

I recently noted that the fall 1926 editions of the New Yorker barely mentioned baseball, even though the Yankees made it to the World Series that year. No doubt the Black Sox scandal of 1919 still lingered in the minds of many fans. Morris Markey’s “Reporter at Large” column in the Jan. 8, 1927 issue suggested that the game was still dishonest, thanks in part to its collusion with the newspapers:

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Baseball might have been down and out, but actress Pola Negri still maintained her place in the spotlight with her latest film, Hotel Imperial.

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Actress Pola Negri consults on a script with director Mauritz Stiller (left) on the set of Hotel Imperial. (MOMA)

Next Time: Bad Hootch

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A Changing Sky Line

Although architectural criticism was practiced by a rare few in 1926 (and even fewer today), it was prominent in the pages of The New Yorker. Lewis Mumford famously served as the magazine’s critic from the 1930s to the 1950s, and longtime critic Paul Goldberger took over the magazine’s “Sky Line” column from the mid-90s to 2011.

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October 16, 1926 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

In 1926 George S. Chappell served the magazine as architecture critic under the pseudonym “T-Square.” A rare combination of architect, parodist, and journalist, he was perhaps best known for his travel series parody published under the pseudonym “Walter E. Traprock.”

In the Oct. 16, 1926 issue, Chappell took critical aim at the “cheap architecture” sprouting amidst the clamor of a rapidly changing landscape…

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…and referred to the fenestration (the arrangement of windows and doors) of the Murray Hill Building as “atrocious.”

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The Murray Hill Building. (Museum of the City of New York)
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The ground-floor show windows of Murray Hill feature free-hand carvings depicting people in various trades. (Wikimapia)

Chappell then set his sights on “another disappointment,” the Delmonico Building, which he said possessed “the grace of an overgrown grain elevator…”

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Part of Chappell’s disgust is no doubt attributable to the fact that the beloved old Delmonico Building at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street (left, photo from The Brickbuilder, 1899), was razed in 1925 and replaced by the “overgrown grain elevator” at right. (Google Maps screen image)

He then moves on to the landmark French Building with its “dreary factory windows”…

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The French Building. (flickr/Wally Gobetz)
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The 5th Avenue entrance to the French Building. (omnidisc)

So what did Chappell prefer? Read on…

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Aeolian Hall on Fifth Avenue, constructed on a site formerly occupied by the William Rockefeller mansion. (Museum of the City of New York)
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Detail of the upper stories of the building. (Daytonian in Manhattan)
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Cartier’s clock on Fifth Avenue (Pinterest)

Despite Chappell’s oft disapproving gaze, in the end he (along with other editors and writers at The New Yorker) could not help but be caught up in the thrill of one of the city’s grandest building booms…

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Other items of note in the Oct. 16 issue, this ad promoting the first-ever “New Yorker book,” a collection of “Profiles” by Waldo Frank, who wrote under the pen name “Search-light”…

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And finally this picturesque ad for Marmon automobiles. The company was defunct by 1933.

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Next time: A Royal Flush…

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