Monday, September 2, 2019

Then and Now: 104th St. at Broadway, NYC

Broadway at 104th Street, Manhattan

West 104th Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Foodorama at 104th Street and Broadway, NYC, southeast corner, in 1980.
The Upper West Side always has been in a prime location, with every building just a short walk away from both Central Park and the Hudson River. What's not to like? However, portions of the Upper West Side got very run down in the 1960s and 1970s and only recently have revived. When I came across the 1980 photo above, it reminded me of all the local grocery stores that once upon a time dotted the streets of Manhattan alongside the pizzerias and the dry cleaning stores and the electronic shops. The trash on the street also brings back those warm and fuzzy memories of a city on the verge of bankruptcy. But what does it look like today? Did they raze that run-down building, or is Foodorama still in operation about forty years later? To find out, I did a comparison of Broadway at West 104th Street, NYC, from 1980 to 2017.

West 104th Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
 104th Street and Broadway, NYC, southeast corner, in October 2017 (Google Street View)
The location is very distinctive, so there's no question that we are in the right location. The building at 2710 Broadway was built in 1930 and is bigger than it looks, with 19,155 square feet. Next to it to the right, just visible in the 1980 photo, is 2708 Broadway. Completed in 1925, it, too, is unchanged, though something seems to have been going on with some of its windows in 1980. Back then, West 104th Street at Broadway was a fringe area, rather rundown and with a poor reputation. All that has changed by 2017, with unmistakable signs of gentrification abundance. This building itself shows how much things have changed in this portion of the Upper West Side. The apparently vacant third floor now is a yoga studio and the little supermarket has become a language center. Even the pizza joint on the corner is gone, replaced by a health care facility.

West 104th Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The east side of Broadway looking north between 103rd and 104th Streets in October 2017 (Google Street View). 
However, all is not lost for you food lovers! The Foodorama with its aggressive signs and downscale look has been transformed by a neat and tidy Gristedes just down the block. It's all very tasteful and subtle, the way upscale shoppers prefer. Subtle changes like that over time tell you a great deal about the changing mix of people in an area. Next to the Gristedes is a Santander Bank branch, similarly tasteful and low key. The parking meters are gone, the street now is relatively clean, there are little bike racks that actually are being used. Everything just looks tidier and more genteel. There probably wasn't a whole lot of demand for a yoga studio in this area back in 1980. If there was, that demand wasn't being met - but now it is. The neighborhood has been transformed, and we didn't need to commission a $50,000 study to figure that out, just look at one street corner.

West 104th Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The southeast corner of Broadway at West 104th Street, NYC in December 2017 (Google Street View).
Now that we've made the case for how much the neighborhood has changed, let's not overstate it. The buildings themselves are virtually untouched aside from removing some unattractive brackets for signs. However, there's still that skeletal billboard structure on top of 2710 Broadway, still unused in December 2017. The people change, but the buildings remain the same. They're just repurposed for the changing needs of the neighborhood. The truly startling thing about this comparison is how little the scene has changed but how much the vibe has been altered over 40 years.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Love it or hate it, gentrification has changed a lot of New York neighborhoods since the 1970s, and the southeast corner of Broadway at West 104th Street is a tiny illustration of that. Please visit some of our other entries in this series!

2019

Friday, August 30, 2019

Then and Now: Park Avenue South, NYC

Park Avenue South, Manhattan

Park Avenue South, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Park Avenue South in 1970.
The history of Manhattan is that the "hot" areas moved steadily north from Wall Street throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries. There were many areas that were extremely popular at particular times, such as 14th Street around the turn of the 20th Century, that later were bypassed and fell into neglect. Only recently have some of these areas rebounded as their excellent locations were recognized and renovated to meet modern needs. Park Avenue South is like the Cinderella of New York Avenues. It gets no respect but always seems on the verge of stardom. When I saw the above picture of Park Avenue South from 1970 with the big Pan Am Building in the distance, I wondered if all that promise and hope over the years had made a big difference. So, I decided to do a comparison of Park Avenue South from 1970 to 2017.

Fourth Avenue, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Park Avenue South (then Fourth Avenue), looking north from East 31st Street in 1890. The importance of the area is indicated by those newfangled electric poles that were just coming into fashion. The large building is the 1876 Park Avenue Hotel, and the smaller building next to it is the older Brandes Hotel. Note the streetcars coming out of the Park Avenue Tunnel at 33rd Street (from "New York Then and Now," Dover Publications, via Ephemeral New York).
Park Avenue South runs between East 17th Street (at Union Square) up to East 32nd Street in Manhattan. Above 32nd Street, it is simply Park Avenue. If that seems kind of arbitrary to you, well, it is. There is nothing about East 32nd Street that makes it some kind of marker between north and south other than the fact that the avenue name changes. This brings up the history of the name itself, which is a bit unusual. It was put in the 1811 grid map of the city as Fourth Avenue, which is its natural name given its position directly to the east of Fifth Avenue (at least along some sections, Madison Avenue is between them north of East 23rd Street). It continued happily as Fourth Avenue until 1959, when it was decided to rename it as Park Avenue South. However, only the 15-block stretch between Union Square and East 32nd Street was renamed to Park Avenue South. Below Union Square, it was and remains Fourth Avenue.

Fourth Avenue, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Union Square, looking north toward the future Park Avenue South, 1893 (Halftone Print).
This is one of those New York oddities where the city decides to rename an avenue for apparently no reason. I don't think anyone will dispute me when I say that "Fourth Avenue" does not have quite the cachet in Manhattan as Fifth Avenue or Third Avenue or Second Avenue. "Fourth Avenue" conjures up images of drab warehouses and 1800s department stores. There is nothing wrong with Fourth Avenue, but obviously, someone with enough clout wanted to separate the area north of Union Square from that name and associate it with the glamorous stretch of avenue north of Grand Central Terminal. The Park Avenue South area was so unfashionable for many years that it didn't even really have a neighborhood name. Everyone knows Greenwich Village and Gramercy and Chelsea and so forth, but Park Avenue South was kind of left out. In the 19th Century, this area was called Rose Hill, and that is still used occasionally. Rose Hill is the area bounded by 23rd Street to the south, 32nd Street to the north, Madison Avenue to the west, and Third Avenue to the east. However, it's still an area without an identity.

Fourth Avenue, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The future Park Avenue South at 23rd Street in 1893, showing the National Academy of Design (Halftone Print).
Sometimes, these name changes don't really stick, such as renaming Sixth Avenue to "Avenue of the Americas" during World War II. However, the name "Park Avenue South" seems to have caught on enough for nobody to still call it Fourth Avenue. This is probably because Park Avenue sounds more prestigious than plain old Fourth Avenue, a name which is tarnished a bit due to its close association with the Bowery. Whatever the reason, it became Park Avenue South and that is how people think of it today.

Fourth Avenue, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Looking north from 21st Street on the future Park Avenue South in 1903. Already, the street's character is changing into a wall of buildings, with construction cranes visible putting up even more tall buildings (Halftone Print).
In the 1960s and 1970s, though, the new name was not immediately embraced. There were stories of mail being misdelivered and misaddressed and people refusing to call their beloved old Fourth Avenue "Park Avenue South," which made it sound like it was in somebody's basement. However, the name did catch on, though old habits die very hard in New York City and you may still find some old-timers who refuse to call it anything but Fourth Avenue. There also are engravings of "Fourth Avenue" here and there on the old buildings. Manhattan has a long memory.

Park Avenue South, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Park Avenue South in the 1970s. This was one of the rare streets in Manhattan that had little trees lining its center median. Now, of course, there are trees everywhere in Manhattan (from "New York Then and Now," Dover Publications, via Ephemeral New York).
Whatever you want to call it, Park Avenue South was hot in the 1920s. That is when many of the buildings that line it were built. These have pretty much remained intact since then, with some additions near Grand Central Terminal. Originally built as office towers, many of these imposing buildings have been converted to coops and condos over the past 30 years. So, though the street may look the same, it actually has changed dramatically in terms of how these buildings are used in the 21st Century.

Park Avenue South, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Park Avenue South from 29th Street, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
Now, Park Avenue South is an extremely hot area. Well, okay, at least tepidly hot. It is on the move, baby! It is full of new restaurants and businesses that cater to a completely new and up-and-coming clientele. However, it did not become hot due to the name change or the success of the businesses in those forbidding 1920s office buildings. Instead, all of those pre-war buildings with the big interior spaces turned out to be wonderful living spaces, something the original builders and the city officials who made the name change in 1959 never contemplated. So, instead of the insurance companies and ad agencies that had offices on Park Avenue South in the 1950s, now it is full of multi-million dollar apartments and trendy apartments for young lawyers and designers. That's real change in New York City, the kind you can believe in.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. The streets may stay the same, even the buildings may stand for over a hundred years, but the lives of the people that inhabit them make deep and lasting changes in how they are used. Please visit some of our other pages in this series!

2019

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Then and Now: The Alamo in Astor Place, NYC

The Alamo in Astor Place, Greenwich Village

The Alamo in Astor Place, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The Alamo in Astor Place, 1978.
I love talking about the Village and there's a lot to talk about. To me, Greenwich Village has more unique aspects than any other Manhattan neighborhood. There are a lot of quirks in Greenwich Village. There are just some ... things that are just there and don't make a lot of sense unless you want them to make sense. Not bad things, just things that are a little off-kilter. One of these is a big black cube in Astor Place, Greenwich Village. Astor Place is both the name of a very short street and of a state of mind. Oh, and also the name for the entire neighborhood and its subway stop. Anyway, I saw the above 1978 photo of the big black cube, sometimes called the Astor Place Cube, and decided to update the photo with a more recent view of the same scene. So, I did a comparison of Astor Place, NYC, from 1978 to 2017.

The Alamo in Astor Place, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The Cube sometime in the 1980s, with the former Wanamaker's Store (now a K-Mart) serving as a backdrop (Courtesy Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation).
There is no way to talk about Astor Place without talking about the big black cube, so let's get right to it. The cube is called The Alamo and it was designed by sculptor Tony Rosenthal. He had it cast in a New Haven, Connecticut, foundry in 1967 before erecting it in what is now known as Alamo Square. It went up as part of the "Sculpture and the Environment" organized by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and was only intended to be temporary. However, locals liked it, so there the Alamo has resided ever since. It was restored in 1987 by the same New Haven foundry that originally cast it, and renovated again in 2005 to fix some broken parts, and then again in 2015-16 while Astor Place was being redeveloped. The Alamo is 1800 pounds (820 kg) of love, and people can twist it around on the metal pipe which rises up through its center. The Municipal Art Society placed it in the "Adopt-a-Monument" program, and its sponsor during the 1980s was Texan Dan Neale.

The Alamo in Astor Place, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Astor Place, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
From starting out as a temporary exhibit along with about 25 other such sculptures during the Summer of Love, the Alamo has become a fixture on the border between the Village and the East Village. It's not really clear what it symbolizes, why it's called the Alamo, or even how long it can last. However, unlike the grand subway entrances of the past which were torn down ostensibly because they interfered with driver vision (nice excuse), the Alamo with its impenetrable 8'x8' Cor-Ten steel dimensions somehow has endured. Personally, I think they should have kept some of those cows from that famous street art exhibit circa 2001 and ditched the Alamo, but I will admit that the Alamo certainly does have a presence about it. Even if it's not clear what that presence is. But who am I to say? The people have spoken and they want the Alamo!

The Alamo in Astor Place, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Astor Place, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
Well, enough about the big black cube. If you like it, visit Astor Place sometime and give it a whirl (literally). The massive building directly behind it in the photo directly above has a much longer history. John Wanamaker was a Philadelphia entrepreneur who was born in 1838 and basically invented the modern department store. He built 770 Broadway between 1903 and 1907 on an entire block between 8th and 9th Streets. Originally, this Wanamaker's was even bigger, with a sky bridge connecting it to the "main store" across 9th Street, but that part of the store closed down in 1954 and burned down in 1957 in a spectacular conflagration. It now serves as the headquarters for Verizon Media (which include Huff Post and AOL, among other ventures). K-Mart occupies the first two floors and the basement, where there is an entrance to the Astor Place subway stop. Incidentally, if you're shopping in New York, you should stop in K-mart, it has fairly reasonable prices on a wide assortment of typical grocery store goods as well as clothing and things like that.

Well, there is a lot more to Astor Place, but we'll get to the other stuff another time. Anyway, thanks for reading this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Astor Place has a lot of history, as do the buildings around it. The Alamo is a beloved Village treasure which basically does nothing but certainly does that in a unique way. Please visit some of our other pages in this series!

2019

Then and Now: Broadway at 72nd Street, NYC

Broadway at 72nd Street, Manhattan

West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, 1978. 
One of the themes of this series is that it's the little neighborhood joints that seem insignificant that leave a lasting impression. If you live in a certain neighborhood, you'll remember the dry cleaner that you used or the bar that stop in after work a lot more fondly than the local subway stop or the fancy buildings or any of the stuff that tourists come to see. Making comparisons between then and now can be a little bit like time-traveling. You see a scene long ago and then see it again much later and, usually, the streets and buildings are the same for the most part but the street businesses and other signs of habitation have all changed. When that doesn't happen, it comes as a bit of surprise, and that's what we have here. The photo above caught my eye because it offered a great window into the past, so I decided to do a comparison of the intersection of Amsterdam Avenue, Broadway, and 72nd Street, NYC, from 1978 to 2017.

West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, looking south in October 2017 (Google Street View). 
The scene has changed little in 40 years. The entrance on Verdi Square to the subway directly in front of us is an express station on the IRT Broadway–Seventh Avenue Line of the New York City Subway. It opened in 1904. Two years after the original photo was taken, in 1980, this structure was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, looking north in October 2017 (Google Street View). 
In 2002, the city completed a major renovation that added a new control house directly behind where the 1978 photographer was standing. It provides better access to the station but doesn't have the flair of the 1904 control house.

West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
West 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, southeast corner in October 2017 (Google Street View).
What caught my eye was the building on the southeast corner of 72nd Street and Broadway. Donohue’s Restaurant on the second floor has been replaced by a Sleepy's Mattress store. Jack Donohue, the proprietor, opened the restaurant in 1970 and passed away in 1995 at the age of 63. The two-story building is 2080-94 Broadway aka 176 West 72nd Street. It is a commercial building that dates from 1938. This is just within the Upper West Side/Central Park Historic District established on 24 April 1990, so it is protected. For reference, this is a couple of blocks from the Dakota on Central Park West. The street-level store, however, sticks out because it is the same in both the 1978 photo and recent Google Street View pictures. It was founded in 1973 at this location and has operated there continuously ever since. In fact, for a couple of years, this was the only remaining location of Gray's Papaya.

Gray's Papaya, 8th Street at Sixth Avenue, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The Gray's Papaya on 6th Avenue at 8th Street after it closed in April 2014.
People in the Village fondly remember the Gray's Papaya 402 Sixth Avenue at 8th Street, where you could get two hotdogs for a dollar back in the day. The papaya drinks weren't so hot, but at least they were cheap. Unfortunately, the Greenwich Village, a favorite of NYU students and residents of the area, closed in 2014. That left only the 72nd Street outlet as the last one until the chain opened a second location in 2016 at 612 Eighth Avenue, between West 39th and West 40th streets.

Gray's Papaya, 72nd Street at Broadway, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Gray's Papaya at its longtime location at 2090 Broadway at 72nd Street in November 2017 (Google Street View).
What really struck me about the 1978 photo was not the bust apparently in progress at the subway stop, nor the historic control house before it became, er, historic, nor the buildings beyond which also remain the same. It was Gray's Papaya on the corner because it somehow has survived intact when so many of its competitors like Nedick's have not. I think I may stop by and get a couple of dogs next time I'm in town.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. There's a lot more continuity in Manhattan than you might think. Please visit some of our other entries in this series!

2019

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Then and Now;: East 23rd Street at Fifth Avenue, NYC

East 23rd Street at Fifth Avenue, Manhattan

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, in 1974 randommusings.filminspector.com
Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, in 1974. To the extreme right is the Flatiron Building, and to the extreme left is the Metropolitan Life Home Office building.
This is one of the most iconic intersections in Manhattan, but I bet most people wouldn't be able to recognize where it is from the above photo without the caption. Broadway slicing through the Manhattan grid street pattern creates some of the most recognizable place names in the world: Times Square, Herald Square, Columbus Square, and several others. This is another one: Madison Square. However, it certainly doesn't look very iconic from the above photo. In fact, it looks like a jumbled mess. However, one new building can drastically change the character of a view. When I saw the above 1974 photo, I didn't immediately recognize the location despite the fact that I lived with ten blocks of it for a full decade and still retain roots there. I finally figured out where it was by noticing at the extreme right of the photo that little ridge - that, I recognized. What is it?

The Flatiron Building at Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
A better look at the building on the extreme right of the original 1974 photo. Yes, that is the Flatiron Building at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, NYC.
So, we have the right location, but it sure looks unfamiliar. So, I decided to do a comparison of Fifth Avenue at Broadway and Fifth Avenue from 1974 to 2017.

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
The reason for my confusion became clear once I saw the current view. What has changed? Well, not much, just the addition of one building. It is Madison Green, 5 East 22nd Street, New York, NY. Madison Green - obviously named after Madison Square Park, which is to our left - was built in 1985. That was the height (pardon the pun) of a Manhattan building boom due to the near-term expiration of some generous property tax abatements. A lot of newish buildings in Midtown South and surrounding areas such as the Flatiron District date from 1984-86, which was not a particularly outstanding era for architecture but featured a lot of very big buildings. I've walked by that building a hundred times and never really notice it, so, at least from perspective, it's not that intrusive. It's just kind of bland and... there.

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, September 2017 (Google Street View).
Incidentally, that building over on the left hasn't changed in a long time. In fact, that building is even older than the Flatiron Building. That was the site of the Metropolitan Life Home Office building (officially 1 Madison Square), completed in 1893 and then replaced in the 1950s (which is the building we see today). The distinctive tower right behind it was added in 1911. and modernized in the early 1960s. That has been the solid backdrop for Madison Square since the days of the original 1879 Madison Square Garden was demolished to make room for it (yes, this is where the name comes from, even though Madison Square Garden is no longer anywhere near Madison Square).

Broadway at 23rd Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The 1957 Metropolitan Life Home Office building, with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower behind it, September 2017 (Google Street View).
There's no question that Madison Green, a 29-story condo, has changed the character of the area. It dwarfs the Flatiron Building, though, of course, the Flatiron Building is iconic and can withstand the competition. How you feel about this kind of change probably depends on your own views about development. It's a fabulous location for residences, with many apartments looking out over Madison Square, others looking out over the East River toward Queens and Brooklyn, and others looking south toward the downtown and the World Trade Center. A lot of cities would try to frustrate this kind of development, but fortunately, New York City allowed it. All of those dwellings help to keep rents somewhat in check, though nobody will ever accuse the Flatiron District of having low rents relative to the rest of the country. And, if you must have a sense of that old-time view, you can still see that lonely water tower over on the right, reminding you of how things used to be before that big money rolled into the area.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. A massive new building like Madison Green may annoy some purists, but it rejuvenates a neighborhood and lets more people enjoy it. Please visit some of our other articles in this series!

2019

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Then and Now: The New Yorker, NYC

The New Yorker Hotel at 8th Avenue and 34th Street, Manhattan

The New Yorker, 8th Avenue and 34th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The New Yorker, 8th Avenue at 34th Street, in 1979.
One of the things I like most about Manhattan is the old-time glamor that permeates certain sections of town. The most noticeable example of that is in midtown, around 34th Street, which was the heart of New York when art deco was at its height. The New Yorker Hotel is one of those unique New York institutions which has survived while others have fallen by the wayside. Now officially called the Wyndham New Yorker Hotel, it is located at 481 Eighth Avenue in New York City. It opened in 1930 during the height of the skyscraper building boom and, like the others that arose around the same time such as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, it is designed in the art deco style. When I saw the above photo of the New Yorker from 1979, I decided to see what the same scene looks like now. So, I did a comparison of the New Yorker from 1979 to 2017.

The New Yorker, 8th Avenue and 34th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Undated photo of the New Yorker, ca. 1940 (courtesy New Yorker Hotel).
For over 30 years, the New Yorker retained its original coal-fired steam boilers and generators capable of producing more than 2,200 kilowatts of direct current electric power. This, of course, ran counter to the general use of alternating current developed by Nikolai Tesla. Thus, it was somewhat ironic that Tesla chose to live in the New Yorker for the last decade of his life, from 1934 to 1943. He liked to sit in Central Park and feed the pigeons. After he passed away, MIT Professor John Trump was asked by the government to review his papers for anything significant. John Trump was the uncle of Donald Trump.

The New Yorker, 8th Avenue and 34th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The New Yorker Hotel ca. 1948.
The New Yorker went through a  number of weird detours over the years. In 1975, the Unification Church of the United States led by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon bought the then-vacant building for $5.6 million. Used for various religious purposes, the hotel acquired an almost mystical reputation. The Unification Church still owns the New Yorker Hotel and reopened it as a hotel in 1999 after spending five years upgrading it. The New Yorker Hotel joined the Wyndham Hotels chain in March 2014.

The most noticeable thing about the New Yorker from street level is probably the sign. The original sign stopped working in 1967 during the hotel's troubled times, and it was not replaced (with a new LED version) until 2005. Otherwise, except for some cosmetic improvements, the

The New Yorker, 8th Avenue and 34th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
34th Street looking east toward 8th Avenue, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
Getting the right street was a little tricky for the original view because the entrances of the New Yorker looks very similar on both the 8th Avenue and 34th Street sides. The original photo was taken on 34th Street looking east toward Penn Station, Madison Square Garden, and Macy's - all of which, of course, remain there. The Empire State Building was almost invisible in the original photo, which just goes to show how misty it can get in Manhattan when it rains. Otherwise, the scene hasn't changed very much, though the low building across the street at the northeast corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue has been pretty well hidden behind signage.

The New Yorker, 8th Avenue and 34th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
The New Yorker, looking up 8th Avenue from 34th Street, November 2017 (Google Street View).
If you peek around the corner to the left and look uptown on Eighth Avenue, the New Yorker looks very similar. While not as famous, the building just beyond the New Yorker on Eighth Avenue, 505 Eighth Avenue, also was built in 1930, and the one next to it, 519 Eighth Avenue, was built in 1927. They are perfectly functional buildings but don't have that distinctive art deco look, so nobody really pays them much mind as tourist attractions.

I hope you enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. The massive piles in the center of Manhattan have had an enduring quality that retains the mystique of the 1930s while remaining very much in the here and now. Please visit some of our other pages in this series!

2019

Monday, August 26, 2019

Then and Now: Weathermen Explosion House, 1970

West 11th Street near Fifth Avenue, Manhattan

18 West 11th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
18 West 11th Street, NYC, on March 18, 1970.
Friday, March 6, 1970, was an ordinary day in Greenwich Village until an explosion blew the front off of an 1845 Greek Revival townhouse at 18 West 11th Street. Unlike some areas of Manhattan, some quite close by, this area of Greenwich Village never experienced a decline during the 1960s and 1970s. Ir remained prime real estate, the home to movie stars and other well-to-do folks, even as the East Village and the Bowery declined. You can verify this by noticing the (charred) tree in front of it, at a time when trees on Manhattan streets were extremely rare and a sure sign of wealth. I came across an image of the explosion, so I thought I would check in on the location and see what it looked like today. So, this is a comparison of 18 West 11th Street, NYC, from 1970 to November 2017.

18 West 11th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com

The explosion was caused when members of the underground Weathermen, a radical group opposed to the Vietnam War and The Man, accidentally detonated a bomb they were making in the basement of 18 West 11th Street. Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, who were assembling the bombs, and Theodore "Ted" Gold were killed by the blast. Two other Weathermen, Cathlyn Wilkerson and Kathy Boudin, survived and escaped in the confusion. They remained on the FBI's Most Wanted List until their captures in 1980 and 1981, respectively. The townhouse was owned by Wilkerson's father, a radio-station executive who was in the Caribbean at the time. Apparently, he had no idea that radicals were using his pricey building.

18 West 11th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com

The townhouse was completely wrecked and ultimately razed after a lengthy investigation. The bombs were so powerful that they basically vaporized the two Weathermen making them, but the structure of the house directed the blast in such a way that it barely scratched the two adjoining townhouses.

18 West 11th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Pacific Stars and Stripes, 9 March 1970.
One of the houses next door was owned by the actor Dustin Hoffman, who immediately became the focus of every news story about the incident. The fact that Hoffman and his wife, Anne Byrne, were able to rescue "three modern paintings and a Tiffany glass lampshade" was almost as prominently reported in news accounts as the deaths and survivors.

18 West 11th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com

The Weathermen were just one of many radical groups at the height of the Vietnam War. Like the others, it was composed of college students who had no real plans but simply wanted to bring attention to their pet causes. It's even unclear what target they intended to use the bombs against, they just wanted to blow something up. Well, they did, they sure did.

18 West 11th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com

As the photos show, what the Weathermen didn't destroy, the bulldozers finished off. Since the townhouse is in the Greenwich Village Historic District, rebuilding the completely destroyed structure had to go through a lot of paperwork. Finally, in 1978-79, the site was rebuilt by architect Hugh Hardy.

18 West 11th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
18 West 11th Street, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
The rebuilt house features an angular "rear facade" (for some reason that is the technical term for the front wall). At first glance, one might assume that the protusion was designed as a sort of memorial to the blast. However, according to the architect, Hugh Hardy, he designed it that way because the fad then was "diagonals." Well, it's certainly diagonal. Whatever the reasoning, the design sticks out like a sore thumb on the elegant block, as if desperate to call attention to itself.

18 West 11th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
18 West 11th Street, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
As one could surmise, despite not being a "renowned architect," that the new design hasn't aged well in terms of public acceptance. In fact, almost since the day it was built, people have wished it would be rebuilt more in keeping with its Greek Revival surroundings. Of course, once again, any changes have to go through the Landmark Preservation Committee (LPC) despite the fact that the building itself has virtually nothing left from its 1844-45 incarnation. So, in November 2013, a new owner submitted an application to eliminate the "diagonal" and restore a flat front, er, rear facade.

18 West 11th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Renovation plan approved by LPC.
In what must be record time for the LPC, it approved the renovation within two months, on January 22, 2014. Apparently, they couldn't approve the change fast enough. Believe me, there are people who see that and wince as they reflect on how long it took them to get approval. It's undoubtedly an indication of how much of an eyesore the "diagonal" is. So, that ends our story, the building was renovated, and the dreaded diagonal is no more. Right? Well, not exactly.

18 West 11th Street, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
18 West 11th Street, NYC, November 2017 (Google Street View).
As we've already seen, the dreaded diagonal is still there. But what happened with all that LPC activity and the approval of the renovation and, well, everything? Well, that is unclear (this is quite common in situations involving Manhattan real estate). Public records show that the property at 18 West 11th Street has been sold three different times since the LPC approval, most recently (as of this writing) on June 21, 2019. Naturally, the transactions involve LLCs, which means the owner remains anonymous unless he or she or it decides to reveal their identity. So, at last check, the property remains as it has been since 1979, a stark reminder of the events of March 1970.

I hope your enjoyed this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. The world will never forget the tragic explosion at 18 West 11th Street, and apparently will never be allowed to forget the modernist reconstruction. Please visit some of our other pages in this series!

2019