Tag Archives: Urban History

Researching the History of Buildings in NYC Program

This February, The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) offers New Yorkers with either a budding or an abiding interest in architectural history an opportunity to join the more than 500 architects, engineers, building owners, preservationists, lawyers, landmarks commissioners – and one New York City detective – who have taken the popular four-week MAS seminar Researching the History of Buildings in New York over the last two decades.

For the 20th year in a row, architectural historian and former NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission official Anthony Robins explains how to dig up the dirt on New York City buildings, their architects and their original owners. Participants will learn how to:

* Locate and understand NYC building records
* Track down client information through deeds and obituaries
* Suss out architectural info via periodicals and professional records
* Use historical archives to unearth photographs, maps and tax records

Anthony Robins is an architectural historian who has lectured for museums, universities and private groups around the world. Formerly deputy director of research and director of survey for The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, he is the author of Classics of American Architecture: The World Trade Center (Pineapple Press, 1987- new edition, 2011) and Subway Style: 100 Years of Architecture & Design in the New York City Subway (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004), for which he won the New York City Book Award, as well as articles for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Gourmet, Architectural Record and Metropolis. He composed the site markers for Heritage Trails New York (New York’s answer to Boston’s Liberty Trail) and is a founding member of the Art Deco Society of New York as well as the creator of its walking tour program. In 1997 Robins received a Rome Prize fellowship to the American Academy in Rome. He holds an M.A. in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

Researching the History of Buildings in New York

Dates: Wed, Feb 1, 8, 15 + 20- 5:45-7:30 p.m. + weekday field trip (date TBA)

Location: Municipal Art Society, 111 W. 57th St (b/w 6th + 7th Aves), 16th Fl

Cost: $300 ($250 for MAS members and F/T students w/ valid ID). NOTE: Lectures and field trip cannot be purchased individually.
Continuing Ed Credits: 8.0 LU CES
Registration: Register Here
Information: (212) 935-3960, ext. 1234

Wednesday, February 1, 5:45-7:30 p.m.

The Building, Part I

An introduction to the records of the Department of Buildings: (1) new buildings and alteration applications, docket books, index cards, block and lot maps- (2) the mysteries of the plan desk- and (3) and the computerized Building Information System (BIS).

Wednesday, February 8, 5:45-7:30 p.m.

The Building, Part II: the Client

How to weave your way through deeds, directories, obituaries and Who’s Who and how to navigate ProQuest and other online resources.

Wednesday, February 15, 5:45-7:30 p.m.

The Architect

Using standard texts, guidebooks, periodicals, the Avery Index, and Committee for the Preservation of Architectural Records publications.

Wednesday, February 22, 5:45-7:30 p.m.

Miscellaneous Sources

Use of photograph collections, maps, New York City archives, libraries and historical society. Special attention to early 19th-century Manhattan real-estate tax records.

Date TBA

Weekday Morning Field Trip

Visit the New York County Register’s Office (conveyance records), the Municipal Archives (Building Department and tax records), the Municipal Reference Library and the Manhattan Department of Buildings.

The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), founded in 1893, is a non-profit membership organization committed to making New York a more livable city through education, dialogue and advocacy for intelligent urban planning, design and preservation. For more information visit MAS.org.

NYC Historic Districts Council Names Six to Celebrate

The Historic Districts Council, New York’s city-wide advocate for historic buildings and neighborhoods, has announced the 2012 Six to Celebrate, an annual listing of historic New York City neighborhoods that merit preservation attention. This is New York’s only citywide list of preservation priorities.

The six neighborhoods were chosen from applications submitted by neighborhood groups around the city on the basis of the architectural and historic merit of the area, the level of threat to the neighborhood, strength and willingness of the local advocates, and where HDC’s citywide preservation perspective and assistance could be the most meaningful. Throughout 2012, HDC will work with these neighborhood partners to set and reach preservation goals through strategic planning, advocacy, outreach, programs and publicity.

“Neighborhoods throughout New York are fighting an unseen struggle to determine their own futures. By bringing these locally-driven neighborhood preservation efforts into the spotlight, HDC hopes to focus New Yorker’s attention on the very real threats that historic communities throughout the city are facing from indiscriminate and inappropriate development.” said Simeon Bankoff, HDC’s Executive Director. “As the only list of its kind in New York City, the Six to Celebrate will help raise awareness of local efforts to save neighborhoods on a citywide level.”

Founded in 1971 as a coalition of community groups from New York City’s designated historic districts, the Historic Districts Council has grown to become one of the foremost citywide voices for historic preservation. Serving a network of over 500 neighborhood-based community groups in all five boroughs, HDC strives to protect, preserve and enhance New York City’s historic buildings and neighborhoods through ongoing programs of advocacy, community development and education.

The Six to Celebrate will be formally introduced at the Six to Celebrate Launch Party on Wednesday, January 18, 2012, 5:30-7:30pm at the Bowery Poetry Club (308 Bowery at East First Street). For more information or tickets, visit www.hdc.org.

The 2012 Six to Celebrate (in alphabetical order):

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

Elegant rowhouses, Victorian-era mansions and pre-war apartment buildings combine with parks, vibrant commercial streets and impressive institutional buildings to make Bay Ridge a quintessential New York City neighborhood. For more than 30 years, the Bay Ridge Conservancy has been working to preserve and enhance the built environment of this architecturally and ethnically diverse area.

Far Rockaway Beachside Bungalows, Queens

Once upon a summertime, Far Rockaway was the vacation spot for working-class New Yorkers. Although recent decades have erased much of this history, just off the Boardwalk on Beach 24th, 25th, and 26th Streets rows of beach bungalows built between 1918 and 1921 still stand. The Beachside Bungalow Preservation Association is seeking to preserve and revitalize this unique collection of approximately 100 buildings.

Morningside Heights, Manhattan

Situated between Riverside Park and Morningside Park, two scenic landmarks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and developed mainly between 1900 and 1915, Morningside Heights is characterized by architecturally-unified apartment buildings and row houses juxtaposed with major institutional groupings. The Morningside Heights Historic District Committee is working towards city designation of this elegant neighborhood.

Port Morris Gantries, The Bronx

In the South Bronx neighborhood of Port Morris, a pair of ferry gantries deteriorating in an empty lot may seem an eyesore to some, but the Friends of Brook Park sees them as the centerpiece to an engaging public space. Taking inspiration from other New York City waterside parks, this new park will combine recreation, education, and preservation of New York’s history for residents and visitors alike.

Van Cortlandt Village, The Bronx

Once the site of Revolutionary War-era Fort Independence, Van Cortlandt Village developed into a residential enclave in the 20th century. Built on a winding street plan designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, responding to the hills and views of the area, the neighborhood consists of small Neo-Colonial and Tudor revival homes and apartment buildings, including the Shalom Alecheim Houses, an early cooperative housing project. The Fort Independence Park Neighborhood Association is seeking to bring awareness to the neighborhood’s historic and architectural value as well as nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places.

Victorian Flatbush, Brooklyn

Located in the heart of Brooklyn, Victorian Flatbush is known for being the largest concentration of Victorian wood-frame homes in the country. The area presently has five New York City Historic Districts, but the blocks in between them remain undesignated and unprotected despite architecture of the same vintage and style. Six local groups representing Beverly Square East, Beverly Square West, Caton Park, Ditmas Park West, South Midwood and West Midwood have joined together with the Flatbush Development Corporation to “complete the quilt” of city designation of their neighborhoods.

The 1902 Park Avenue Tunnel Collision Online

This Sunday marks the anniversary of a largely forgotten piece of New York history. On January 8, 1902, there was a train collision in the train tunnels of New York City. As a result of this disaster, laws were passed in NY which banned steam engines from entering Manhattan and forced the train companies to look into designing electric rails for their commuter trains. To accommodate electric rails, the old Grand Central Depot was torn down and the new and larger Grand Central Station was built, which changed the landscape of NYC forever.

Researcher Cathy Horn has been building an online memorial to the event which includes lists of those involved (including some short biographies), photos, documents, and newspaper clippings from the event.

Utica Landmarks Society Honors Preservationists

The Landmarks Society of Greater Utica has honored the recipients of its 2011 Awards of Merit at the society’s annual meeting November 17. A Lifetime Achievement/Distinguished Service Award was presented to Rand Carter, Professor of the History of Art, Hamilton College, for nearly two decades of dedication to the Landmarks Society and the area community in the preservation of historic properties.

The additional honorees are:

David and Regina Bonacci, 251-253 Bleecker St. In 2009, the Bonacci’s purchased a building which most recently contained Gerald’s Men Shop and which dates back to the mid 1800s. It had been on the “endangered buildings” list and was scheduled for demolition for parking in 2007. After extensive renovation, the building now serves as the Bonacci’s loft-style residence, and houses Bonacci Architects headquarters.

St. Joseph’s/St. Patrick’s Church, 702 Columbia St. Constructed in 1873 by German parishioners, the church merged with St. Patrick’s Church in 1968. The parish recently completed a privately funded, $2 million interior and exterior renovation which reflects its commitment to excellence and authenticity in the restoration of sacred spaces and historic buildings.

Manuel and Emmita Avila, l001 Miller St. The Avila’s purchased this stately Queen Anne Colonial Revival house which was on the city’s most endangered buildings list, and have undertaken significant restoration efforts to save it from further deterioration.

Tracy Mills, the The New Uptown Theatre, 2014 Genesee St. Mills purchased Utica’s only full-time movie theater in Utica in 2007. She has since completed the first phases of restoration to maintain the theater’s character-defining features, with plans for upcoming work on the marquee and stage. The theatre has become an anchor destination for the Uptown Entertainment District.

Orin and Kim Domenico, Domenico’s Cafe & The Other Side, 2011 Genesee St. The Domenico family has successfully partnered with their neighbors to create a vibrant and thriving coffee shop and venue for a host of community programs in the Uptown Entertainment District.

Stuart Bannatyne and Vincent Ficchi, Pier’s & Blake, 330 Main St. In 2007, Stuart Bannatyne purchased the Doyle Hardware building, constructed in 1881. hrough a substantial renovation program, the building has been returned to its original character. Thanks to Bannatyne and his business partner Vincent Ficchi, the building is now home of Pier’s & Blake, a cosmopolitan urban pub and gourmet steak house.

Photo: Rand Carter (right) receives the Distinguished Service/Lifetime Achievement Award from the Landmarks Society of Greater Utica President Michael Bosak. Photo provided.

Museum of the City of NY Reopens Research Access

The Museum of the City of New York has reopened access to it’s collections to onsite researchers. On November 1, the Museum resumes accepting appointments from outside researchers and began offering a dedicated space for research as part of their newly renovated collection storage facilities.

To learn how to submit an application for conducting onsite research, send a request to research@mcny.org. In your request indicate the collections of interest and describe your research need. Before contacting the Museum to inquire about a research appointment, visit the Museum’s Collections Portal (collections.mcny.org) which has over 100,000 digital images of photographs, negative, prints, drawings, postcards, and maps from the Museum’s collections.

The following onsite collections will be open to research appointments:

Manuscripts & Ephemera
Manuscript and ephemera holdings augment and complement other elements of the collections and are particularly strong in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century materials. The Manuscripts include papers related to notable New Yorkers, organizations, and events from the 17th century to the present. The ephemera collections include objects such as society dinner menus, trade cards, maps, Valentines, badges, Christmas cards, and material related to public ceremonies, special events, schools, sports, the shipping trade, transportation, statues and monuments, retail trade, and the police and fire departments.

Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
The Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Collection documents the built environment of the city and its changing cultural, political, and social landscape from its earliest days to the present. Photographic holdings include collections on Berenice Abbott, Jacob Riis, and the photographic archives of Gottscho-Scheleisner, LOOK Magazine, Byron Co., and the Wurts Brothers. Drawings range from18th-century pastel portraits and mural studies to political cartoons and architectural renderings. Specific collections include the archives of the Planning Board of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Harry T. Peters Collection of hand-colored Currier & Ives prints, and the Martin Wong Graffiti Collection.

Theater
The Theater Collection documents theatrical activity in New York City from the late 18th century to the present day. The heart of the Theater holdings is the John Golden Archive, which consists of approximately 40,000 folders, organized into files on productions, personalities, and performance spaces. The Theater Collection also holds collections on Burlesque, Circus, Minstrelsy, and Vaudeville. Files contain a wide range of material including photographs, contracts, correspondence, playbills, manuscripts, advertising materials, reviews, obituaries, clippings, sheet music, autographs, account records, prompt books, and ephemera.

The Museum also holds collections of Costumes and Textiles, Decorative Arts and Furniture, and Paintings and Sculpture- however, due to the special preparation necessary for handling these objects, access is extremely limited. For specific inquiries into these collections, email research@mcny.org

NYC Landmarks of Labor Films, Lectures, Discussions

The Historic Districts Council has announced a series of Films, lectures and discussions on NYC’s sites Associated with the Labor Movement. The series of programs will explore New York City’s 19th and 20th century buildings where laborers and organizers lived, worked, and staged notable events related to the labor movement. Participants will learn about the history and future of New York’s labor buildings – including homes, factories, and public squares – and discover the preservation efforts currently underway to save some of these spaces.

Tickets for the entire series are available for $55/$35 for Friends, seniors & students. Advance reservations are required. Tickets can be ordered by visiting or contacting www.hdc.org, 212-614-9107 or hdc@hdc.org.

Remembering the Spatial History of Labor: Where Are Our Landmarks?
Wednesday, November 2, 6:30pm, Seafarers and International House, 123 East 15th Street, 2nd Floor, Manhattan

Fee: $15 for general public/$10 for Friends, seniors & students

This panel will examine the built environment of the labor movement, discussing how and why to preserve significant buildings and sites associated with labor history. Panelists will delve into both cultural and social history such as waterfront laborers and the labor movement among different immigrant groups. Speakers include historians Joyce Mendelsohn and Richard A. Greenwald- and novelist and essayist Peter Quinn, chronicler of Irish-America.

Resistance in Film: Screening of On the Waterfront with discussion

Tuesday, November 8, 6:30pm, Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, Manhattan

Fee: $15 for general public/$10 for Friends, seniors & students

The industrial history of New York City dominated the city’s commerce for more than three centuries. Elia Kazan’s acclaimed film, On the Waterfront, depicts midcentury working conditions along the mob-controlled piers of the Hudson River. The film is based on a 24-part Pulitzer prize-winning series in the New York Sun exposing corruption and racketeering characterizing operations on the water. Noted architectural historian Francis Morrone will speak after the film about its significance in New York City history and culture.

Greenwich Village: Labor History in Bohemia Walking Tour

Sunday, November 13, 10:30am, the exact location for the tour will be announced upon registration.Tour lasts approximately two hours.

Fee: $35 for general public/$25 for Friends, seniors & students
Greenwich Village has a long and distinguished involvement in American Labor History. This walking tour will address the 10,000 marchers in the first Labor Day Parade (1882), the Socialist-led Rand School of Social Science, the founding site of the ILGWU, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the Uprising of 20,000, the Catholic Worker, Cooper Union, and sites associated with Emma Goldman, John Reed, Margaret Sanger, Clara Lemlich, and Samuel Gompers. Come learn from Justin Ferate, one of New York City’s foremost tour guides, about these significant sites.

Landmarks of Labor is sponsored in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the New York City Council and by the New York State Council on the Arts. HDC also wishes to thank New York City Council Members Inez Dickens, Daniel Garodnick, Stephen Levin and Rosie Mendez for their support of this series.

Tunnel Engineer Charles Watson Murdock

By most accounts, the Lincoln Tunnel is the world’s busiest vehicular tunnel (the type used by cars and trucks). It actually consists of three tunnels, or tubes, and accommodates about 43 million vehicles per year, or about 120,000 per day. It was opened in 1937, ten years after the Holland Tunnel (about three miles south) began handling traffic. And a North Country man was instrumental to the success of both tunnel systems.

Charles Watson Murdock, a native of Crown Point, New York, worked closely with some of the best engineers in American history, playing a key role in solving a problem unique to tunnels for vehicles with gasoline-powered engines.

Charles was born on February 11, 1889, to Andrew and Mary Murdock. After entering the Sherman Collegiate Institute (a prep school in Moriah), he attended Middlebury College in Vermont, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, and then RPI in Troy, graduating in 1912 as a civil engineer. Following a stint with the New York Telephone Company, he accepted a position with the Public Service Commission, 1st District, New York City in 1913.

During the next several years, a pressing problem developed in Murdock’s field of work. The automobile had taken hold in America, and with the proliferation of cars in New York City, gridlock became routine. There were far too many vehicles on the road, clogging thoroughfares with major traffic jams, particularly at bridges.

Ferries helped, but the wait was long. The solution of adding more bridges and more ferries carried several additional problems. After studying the issues, experts decided that tunnels were the best option.

Plenty of tunnels had been dug in the past to accommodate trains, water pipelines, and subway systems. The advent of the automobile introduced new problems in anything but the shortest of tunnels. The gasoline engine emitted poisonous gases, primarily carbon monoxide. The problem vexing engineers was how to discharge those deadly gases from tunnels to make the air safe.

No method had yet been devised to fill long tunnels (like the planned 1.6-mile Holland) with safe and breathable air. Slow traffic, stalled cars, and accidents could keep citizens within a tunnel for lengthy periods. All the while, every vehicle would be pumping poisonous gas into an enclosed space, with deadly results.

From among several options, the method proposed by Clifford Holland was chosen. On his team of engineers was Charles Murdock, who was then employed by the New York State Bridge and Tunnel Commission and the New Jersey Interstate Bridge and Tunnel Commission. (Clifford Holland died just two days before the two tunnels from east and west were joined. The project was renamed in his honor.)

Several dozen structures requiring innovative and exceptional engineering skills have been called “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” Among them is the Holland Tunnel, “the world’s first mechanically ventilated underwater vehicular tunnel.” That long-winded description is very important—the Holland’s machine-powered air-handling system became the standard blueprint for automobile tunnels the world over for the next seven decades.

Charles Murdock was deeply involved in its design, development, and implementation. In 1921, he conducted subway ventilation tests at the University of Illinois. Further work—highly detailed, exhaustive experimentation—was done in a test tunnel created in an old mine near Bruceton, Pennsylvania, duplicating the Holland site. The data from those testing facilities formed a basis for the creation of the Holland Tunnel’s ventilation system.

In the process, the engineering team also developed and used the first reliable automated carbon monoxide detector (with kudos from miners and canaries alike, no doubt).

The giant tubes that formed the highway tunnels were separated into three horizontal layers. The middle layer handled traffic- the bottom layer conducted fresh air throughout the tunnel- and the top layer pulled the poisonous gases upward for removal.

The system was driven by four 10-story ventilation towers, two on each side of the river. Together they housed 84 fans of 8 feet in diameter—half provided fresh air, which flowed through slits in the tunnel floor, and the other half expelled “dirty” air and gases skyward. The system provided a complete change in the tunnel’s air every 90 seconds.

Should it ever fail, thousands of lives were at risk. For that reason, extreme safety measures were built into the system. Power to the fans was supplied from six independent sources, three on each side of the river, and each capable of powering the entire tunnel on its own.

Due to Murdock’s great expertise, he was later chosen to oversee the installation of the ventilation system on the Lincoln Tunnel. Fifty-six fans performed the air-handling duties, and twenty men covered three shifts around the clock, monitoring the carbon monoxide instruments. Motorists commented that the air they breathed in the Lincoln Tunnel was far cleaner than what they breathed daily in the city.

In 1938, the year after the Lincoln Tunnel opened, Murdock’s presentation, “Ventilating the Lincoln Vehicular Tunnel” was made before the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers, setting the standard for similar tunnels around the world.

By 1947, ten years after the Lincoln Tunnel opened, Murdock’s work was praised as a modern wonder. It had operated perfectly for a full decade—none of the backup systems were called into use during that time.

Though he was known principally for his work on the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels from the 1920s through the 1960s, Murdock’s skills were called upon for many other large projects. He was a consulting mechanical engineer on the addition of second tunnels to four sites on the Pennsylvania Turnpike—the Allegheny, Blue Mountain, Kittatinny, and Tascarora tunnels.

Among jobs in other states, Murdock consulted on the East River Mountain Tunnel in West Virginia- Big Walker Mountain Tunnel in Virginia- and the Baltimore Tunnel (Outer Tunnel) in Maryland. He also worked on the Riverfront & Elysian Fields Expressway in Louisiana, and Route I-695’s Connector D in Boston.

Charles Murdock remained with the Port Authority of New York for more than 25 years. The Crown Point native is linked to some of the most important engineering work of the twentieth century. He died in Volusia, Florida in 1970 at the age of 81.

Photo Top: Charles Watson Murdock.

Photo Middle: The three layers in the Lincoln Tunnel tubes.

Photo Bottom: A Lincoln Tunnel ventilation tower in Manhattan.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

Lafayette Spaulding: Fiddlin’ Around on Broadway

Ol’ time, foot-stompin’ fiddle music is a North Country staple, rooted in times past when people made their own fun. Its heyday was principally from the mid-1800s to the 1940s, finally giving way in the post-World War II years to the automobile and widespread availability of electricity. Sources of entertainment changed, but before that, the tradition of barn dances and the like was strong across the Adirondacks.

For the past seventy years or so, that tradition has been preserved by a number of outstanding musicians, and it continues today with young Dorothy Jane Siver. Back in the 1950s and 60s, when some of the old tunes were rolled out, it brought back memories of Crown Point’s Lafayette Spaulding.

Born in Ironville (about six miles southwest of Crown Point village in Essex County) in 1830, Spaulding worked on the family farm and at the same time developed a strong interest in music. As an adult, he continued on both paths, operating his own farm in Crown Point while broadening his musical skills. For a time he was the Crown Point Lighthouse keeper, but he farmed most of his life.

The gigs he did as a young boy—parties and dances—confirmed a burgeoning talent. That led to appearances at taverns, dance halls, hotels, wedding receptions, and performances in musical presentations. But he didn’t neglect the smaller venues. Whether you called it a hop, a parlor dance, a kitchen dance, or a barn dance—if it was somewhere in the vicinity of Crown Point, Lafayette Spaulding was the guy to call.

The name itself has a great ring to it, as did his wife’s (Abigail Spaulding). Cora was the name chosen for their daughter, but nothing nearly so normal for their two sons—Viceroy and Vilroy.

By 1860 Lafayette was the pre-eminent dance caller around, and for the next thirty years, his music brought joy to thousands. There was some extra money to be made doing it, but Spaulding was driven by a love for music and performing.

His showmanship was memorable, characterized by two main features. First, he would gladly play once his seating was properly prepared—a chair placed atop a table.

That afforded him full view of the dance floor, which led to another of Lafayette’s favorite pastimes—correcting any dancers who messed up the steps. Spotting an offender, he would stop the music, and to great exaggeration and lots of laughter, Spaulding would correct everyone, offering proper instructions before the music resumed. He managed a running commentary even while calling the dance. The public loved it.

By the mid-1890s, Lafayette was a local legend and had friends beyond count. He was in great demand, and though it seemed like he should be slowing down at the age of 65 (life expectancy then was 48), the best—or at least the biggest—was yet to come.

In late 1899, Spaulding was approached by J. Wesley Rosenquest, manager of the 14th Street Theatre in New York City. Rosenquest had already completed two highly successful runs of The Village Postmaster, a play written by Alice Ives and Jerome Eddy. The story was based on traditional New England life, and Act 2 began with a dance scene. Lafayette was to play the fiddle and call the dance. The skill he had developed in his own act (correcting dancers) was put to use in choreographing the scene.

He joined the theatre company at Troy to rehearse, and a month later, at Christmas, the show opened in New York City to a packed house. The success continued to rave reviews in The New York Times and other newspapers. Said one writer, “Probably the member of the cast who aroused the most interest was “Laffy” Spaulding, the Adirondack Guide, who called the dances. The amusing incidents of the 2nd act, in the Donation Party scene, caused much laughter.”

And in case you’re wondering, yes, it’s true: back then, when a man from “up north” somehow made it into the city newspapers, he was more often than not referred to as an Adirondack Guide.

Six months shy of his 70th birthday, Lafayette was a hit on Broadway and loving every minute of it. He informed friends of his latest ventures, including lunch with the head of a 5th Avenue jewelry firm, and dinner with a millionaire admirer.

In late January, plans were made for the play’s three-week stint covering Brooklyn and Jersey City before touring the western part of the state. By September, he was back at home enjoying his new-found celebrity status.

Lafayette resumed performing in the Lake Champlain area, just as he had always done. A snippet from one report is classic Spaulding: “La Fa [as he was known] Spaulding, of New York theatre fame, made a decided hit. His old fashioned music and manner of calling the changes were amusing, and his way of correcting mistakes, though somewhat abrupt, created uproarious laughter.”

One of his last appearances was in 1905 at the Union Opera House in Ticonderoga. It must have been something to see when the 75-year-old took the stage, prompting this description: “The dancing of ‘Honest John,’ with Lafayette Spaulding as fiddler, brought down the house and revived fond memories of olden times in the minds of the older persons present.”

In November 1907, at the age of 77, Lafayette Spaulding died. Perhaps fittingly, he was found seated upright in his chair as if ready to call the next dance.

Photo: Above, the 14th Street Theater in 1936, shortly before it was torn down- Below, an advertisement at the beginning of Spaulding’s theater run (December 1899).

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.

New Plaque Honors Edith Wharton

New York City’s Historic Districts Council and the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center have commemorated the life and work of Edith Wharton, author of “The House of Mirth” and “The Age of Innocence” with a historic plaque. Born in 1862 at 14 West 23rd Street in the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, Wharton was a chronicler of New York City’s Gilded Age and trendsetter for her generation.

The plaque is part of the Historic Landmarks Preservation Center’s Cultural Medallion program. The Center, chaired by Dr. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel (HDC’s 2011 Landmarks Lion), has installed almost 100 medallions around New York City to heighten public awareness of New York’s cultural and social history.

Distinguished Edith Wharton scholars, including Susan Whissler, executive director of The Mount, participated in the plaque unveiling.

Photo: Photograph taken in Newport, Rhode Island, of author Edith Wharton, wearing hat with a feather, coat with fur trim, and a fur muff. Image courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Manhattan Grid System Focus of Exhibit

The first comprehensive exhibition to trace one of the most defining achievements in New York City’s history—the vision, planning, and implementation of Manhattan’s iconic grid system—will be on view at the Museum of the City of New York from December 5, 2011, through April 15, 2012.

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan for Manhattan, 1811—2011 will document the development of the “Commissioners’ Plan,” which in 1811 specified numbered streets and avenues outlining equal rectangular blocks ranging from (today’s) Houston Street to 155th Street and from First Avenue to Twelfth Avenue.

The exhibition, which is organized on the occasion of the bicentennial of the plan, will elucidate, through maps, photographs, and other historic documents, this monumental infrastructure project—the city’s first such civic endeavor—which transformed New York throughout the 19th century and laid the foundation for its distinctive character.

Some 225 artifacts will be on view in the exhibition, which is organized chronologically and geographically, leading visitors from 17th-century, pre-grid New York through the planning process and the explicit 1811 Commissioners’ Plan, and from the massive and elaborate implementation of the plan to contemporary reflections on New York and visions for its future.

“The 1811 grid was a bold expression of optimism and ambition,&#8221 Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum said. &#8220City commissioners anticipated New York’s propulsive growth and projected that the city—still relatively small at the time and concentrated in what is now Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village—would extend to the heights of Harlem. The 1811 plan has demonstrated remarkable longevity as well as the flexibility to adapt to two centuries of unforeseeable change, including modifications such as Broadway and Central Park. The real miracle of the plan was that it was enforced.&#8221

The exhibition will showcase the illustrious—most notably, John Randel, Jr., who measured the grid with obsessive care. Randel was an apprentice to Simeon DeWitt, the surveyor general of New York State from 1784 to 1834. Between 1808 and 1810 Randel measured the lines of streets and avenues at right angles to each other, and recorded distances and details about the island, its features, and its inhabitants. This resulted in a manuscript map of the grid plan, which he completed by March 1811. Randel continued surveying the island from 1811 to 1817, setting marble monuments (one of which will be on view in the exhibition- there were to have been 1,800) to mark the intersections of the coming grid. Between 1818 and 1820 Randel drafted a series of 91 large-scale maps of the island, now known as the Randel Farm Maps (ten of which will be on view). An article written in the 1850s cited Randel as “one of our most accurate engineers,” further stating that his survey of New York City was done “with such a mathematical exactness as to defy an error of half an inch in ten miles.”

The commissioners’ detailed notes about the grid will also be on view in the exhibition, explaining the plan and expressing their intent to “lay out streets, roads, and public squares, of such width, extent, and direction, as to them shall seem most conducive to public good&#8230-” (From “An Act relative to Improvements, touching the laying out of Streets and roads in the City of New-York, and for other purposes. Passed April 3, 1807.” )

Other colorful figures will be highlighted, including William M. “Boss” Tweed, who implemented high-quality improvements, advanced services, and pushed forward many amenities while at the same time benefitting his associates.

Other rare and exquisitely detailed maps dating from 1776 to the present will be on view, alongside stunning archival photographs portraying the island of Manhattan throughout various stages of excavation. An extraordinary street-by-street explanation of the plan in the words of the commissioners—Gouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt, and John Rutherfurd—will be on view as will other historic documents, plans, prints, and more.

The merits of the grid will be debated. Historians have viewed it as the emblem of democracy, with blocks that are equal and no inherently privileged sites. Historians have also praised its utility, its neat subdivisions that support real estate development. The rectangular lots of Manhattan’s grid parallel Thomas Jefferson’s national survey, which organized land sales in square-mile townships. The grid manifests Cartesian ideals of order, with streets and avenues that are numbered rather than named for trees, people, or places. Frederick Law Olmsted bemoaned its dumb utility and lack of monuments and other features. Jane Jacobs credited city streets with creating New York’s public realm. And Rem Koolhaas called the grid “the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization: the land it divides, unoccupied- the population it describes, conjectural- the buildings it locates, phantoms- the activities it frames, nonexistent.”

The Greatest Grid will reframe ideas about New York, revealing the plan to be much more than a layout of streets and avenues. The grid provided a framework that balanced public order with private initiative. It predetermined the placement of the city’s infrastructure, including transportation services, the delivery of electricity and water, and most other interactions. Manhattan’s grid has provided a remarkably flexible framework for growth and change.

Visitors will have the opportunity to consider New York’s preparation for the future and whether or not the grid will enable the city to face 21st-century challenges. New proposals for the city, the results of a competition, will be on view in a separate, related exhibition co-sponsored by the Architectural League. The Greatest Grid will also feature “12 x 155,” a conceptual art video by artist Neil Goldberg along with other artistic responses, such as original drawings from the graphic novel City of Glass (Picador, 2004) by Paul Auster, illustrated by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli

The Greatest Grid is co-sponsored by the Manhattan Borough President’s Office.

The exhibition is accompanied by a companion book of the same title, co-published by the Museum of the City of New York and Columbia University Press. Dr. Hilary Ballon, University Professor of Urban Studies & Architecture at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, conceived of the exhibition, is its curator, and is the editor of the companion book.

A related exhibition, on view concurrently at the Museum, will feature the results of a competition in which architects and planners were asked for submissions using the Manhattan street grid as a catalyst for thinking about the present and future of New York- this exhibition is co-sponsored by the Architectural League of New York.