Joe's Musings: Mayor LaGuardia D'anton

François Villon, the 15th century French poet, wrote a well-known ballad that mourns the loss of several illustrious women of the ages, including Joan of Arc and Abelard's Heloise. The familiar last line of each stanza laments, "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?", translated "But where are the snows of yester-year?"

One winter in the 1930s, during Mayor LaGuardia's term, an extremely heavy snowfall halted all activity in New York City's financial district. I remember reading an editorial in the New York Herald Tribune. It seems that the city had just purchased a much vaunted snow-removal machine. The article’s accompanying photo depicts the mayor dressed in the uniform of a NYC Sanitation Department foreman. Always a visionary with a gift for practical application, LaGuardia is shown in the canyons of Wall Street, at the wheel of this gigantic machine.

The last sentence of the editorial rephrased Villon: "Où sont les neiges Downtown?"

© Joe Zito, 2008

Hell's Kitchen, NYC ~ How Hell's Kitchen Got Its Name ~ by Joe Zito

At One time there were two Hell's Kitchens -- the earlier one was in London; the later one was in New York City and was named after the one in London.

That there was a hell's Kitchen in London is documented in a book entitled "Hells Kitchen - The Story of London's Underworld" written in 1930 by a notorious professional British criminal under the name of Ingram G. Hall (obviously a pseudonym). "My story," Hall states, "is that of Hell's Kitchen as it is called by those of us who live in it."

The book was edited by De Witt Mackensie, a reputable London publisher of a large newspaper syndicate and printed by Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 3 York Street, London.

In another book entitled "Hell's Kitchen," Richard O'Connor, a New York biographer, states: "The designation Hell's Kitchen was imported from England. A section of London noted for its crime and disorder once was called Hell's Kitchen and the generic phrase may well have been brought over by English immigrants who were among the first to settle in this neighborhood."

The two Hell's Kitchens, if not identical, were essentially similar; both were originally rural areas on the outskirts of a large city that had been dramatically transformed into urban fringe industrial zones created by the emerging nineteenth century Industrial Revolution.

London's Hell's Kitchen had been confined to a section in its East End outside the city limits and alongside of and near the River Thames. Its epicenter included the rural villages of Hoyton, Bethnal Green and Limehouse (the locale of Jack the Ripper).

New York City's Hell's Kitchen had been confined in its Mid-west Side to a large region of sparsely inhabited marshlands and Dutch and Colonial farmlands that provided a concentrated, compact industrial zone. Its streets were lined with single-family brownstone dwellings, boarding houses, typical working-class New York City tenements, service stores, churches, schools, horse-car lines, and elevated railway tracks.

Another striking parallel between the two Hell's Kitchens was a socioeconomic one. Amid the areas that had been selected to isolate the obnoxious urban fringe activities of slaughterhouses, breweries, stables, factories, railroad yards, and lumber, stone, and coal yards, ramshackle, jerry-built rookeries to house hordes of illiterate foreign-born laborers had been constructed. In these squalid slums, poverty, filth, disease, vice, disorder, and crimes committed by vicious gangs and denizens of the underworld virtually dehumanized both Hell's Kitchens.

In the homogeneous history of the two human hell-holes that have been covered over and obliterated in modern times, there lingers one difference between them. In London the name Hell's Kitchen has been abandoned; in New York City the name Hell's Kitchen is still firmly entrenched.

By Joe Zito, copyrighted, all rights reserved,originally published in the Clinton Chronicle, March 2006

Hell's Kitchen, NYC ~ The Green Man Greets the Ninth Ave El, Part 1 ~ by Joe Zito

Serendipitously one day on a Hell’s kitchen tenement wall, I found the Green Man.

For me, this ancient pagan god of vegetation, fertility and good fortune was an unusual discovery. Though the Green Man is easily identified by leaves and tendrils that sprout from his head, nostrils, and ears, the City’s Landmark Preservation Commission and other architectural historians have never mentioned him in their detailed descriptions of buildings, simply lumping the disregarded Green Man with other ornamental grotesque figures.

This failure to recognize him as one of the most popular pagan gods in pre-Christian Europe is difficult to understand. His Magical power over the minds of Saxon, Celtic, and Druid tribesmen was so great that Christian missionaries accepted and transformed the IRREPRESSIBLE deity in order to convert the tribesmen to the New Faith. The evidence for this conclusion can be found in the sculpted heads of Green men displayed today in Romanesque and Gothic churches and cathedrals throughout Western Europe – e.g., the cathedrals of Naumburg and Bamberg in Germany; Norwich and Exeter in England; Rheims and Auxerre in France.

So imagine my surprise when I found not one, but six Green Men decorating a Ninth Avenue Tenement midway between 52nd and 53rd Streets (787 Ninth Ave, built in 1886). Why were no two alike? What accounted for their striking dramatic poses? I pondered these questions until I found the answers. The tenement had been built eight years after the construction of the Ninth Avenue El Railway. The architect had positioned the Green Men at measured intervals along the tenement’s wall at the sight-level of the curious passengers (there were plenty of them) looking out of the windows of trains while trying to peek into other people’s parlors.

Fine, but what was the reason for the Green men’s intense emotional reaction to the passing trains? The answer to this question is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps Jobst Hoffmann, the German-born architect “got a kick out of” paraphrasing a stanza from an old German drinking song: “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the best of Green Men.”

Was Hoffmann smiling merrily when he designed a Green Man sticking his tongue out at nosy passengers (he is at the extreme left of the lower four Green men row)? The second head on his left is exceptional. It is not grotesquified. Is it Mr. Werner, the tenement’s owner, another German immigrant?

Has Hoffmann portrayed his patron as a handsome, self-assured and proper Victorian gentleman with a neatly-trimmed mustache instead of the usual roughly-cut oak leaves? It might well have been. After all, Mr. Werner has left his name on the building’s crowning cornice proudly proclaiming the fact that he has “made it” in the new country.

On Mr. Werner’s left, a Green Man, his eyes squinting in dismay and lips tightly closed, is firmly determined to even the score with the rollicking trespassers on railroad tracks. Next to him another Green Man stares in horror at the huffing and puffing of a steam engine. On the upper left, a Green Man howls with laughter at this new contraption on wheels, while on the upper right, a brooding Green Man, unable to resign himself to an alien environment, longs for his native woods.

After finding the Green Man on the Werner tenement I looked for others on public display. When I found many Green Men returning my stares as I walked around the city, I realized that this god of the pagan past had been revised to satisfy a superstitious belief in his magical power to protect houses against the evil spirits of misfortune.

After all is said and done, in my high-rise apartment house, there is no thirteenth Floor!

by Joe Zito – copyrighted, all rights reserved, original article appeared in the Clinton Chronicle, Jan 2000

Hell's Kitchen, NYC ~ The Werner Building, Part II ~ by Joe Zito

Seven Years after the Elevated Train on Ninth Avenue reached Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton, an unusual tenement was constructed at 787 Ninth Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets.

This is the Werner Building, of 1885, named for its original owner, Mr. Werner. Instead of resigning to the fact that the El's structure would interfere with the pedestrian's viewing it from across the avenue, the architect, Jobst Hoffmann overcame the difficulty by adapting the Werner's design to the railroad tracks, by simply placing a special architectural feature called a frontispiece in the center of it’s facade.

The frontispiece is two bays or two windows wide, in three stories with a pediment centered in the six-story building. To attract attention of the Elevated passengers, Hoffmann outlined the frontispiece window piers in three-tiers with gray-white stone to differentiate them from the plain red brick wall on either side of the centerpiece.

In viewing the Werner façade from across the avenue today – (the Ninth Avenue El was demolished in 1940 just before WW II – one can appreciate how Hoffmann, with two deft architectural strokes, created a masterpiece. In the first place, the solidity of the tiered stone piers was emphasized by contrasting them with two iron railings, black metal delicately embroidered with lace-like railings that would not be out of place on a Fifth Avenue town-house. In second place, Hoffman brought the tiered stone piers to a cool conclusion with a triangular classical pediment in white-gray stone, a classic sign of welcome.

The most remarkable architectural feature of the Werner building are the sculpted heads of six Green Men, positioned on the façade at eye-level with the passengers on the Ninth Avenue Il. The Green Man is an ancient pagan deity of fertility. Green leaves and oak leaves sprout from his mouth and ears as a sign of bountiful harvest. Carvings of the Green Men were revived in the 1880s as good luck charms over doorways, to scare away evil sprits from the building.

To entertain the passengers on the El, the six different Green Men are sculpted with highly emotional features, given theatrical appearances, performances that remind one of the famous sextet in Donizetti’s opera, Lucia de Lammermoor.

On the Werner façade, the Green Men heads have been placed with four on the second floor, of which two on the side serve as keystones on flat arches over the windows – while the center two are displayed under the two-window wide lacy railing, or cresting. On the south side to the left of the frontispiece as you look straight ahead at the Werner, we see the Green Man sticking his tongue out to make fun of his daily audience. Under the railing, the next Green Man appears to be Mr. Werner, the original owner himself, pictured as a mustachioed proper Victorian gentleman.

Separate from Mr. Werner’s head by a consoled-bracket under the railing, the next Green Man is squinting in deep dismay, with his lips tightly closed as if determined to even the score with all those trespassing on his property as they ride past a few feet away.

On the north side or the right side of the facade is a single bay window at the second floor level, where the Green Man stares in horror at what we can presume to be the huffing and puffing of a steam engine. The Ninth Avenue El was eventually electrified in the 1890’s.

But on the south or left side of the façade’s single bay at the third level, a Green Man is howling with laughter at the new contraption on wheels. On the same level, at the right side, a brooding Green Man is still longing for his native woods, unable to resign himself to his urban environment.

When you go walking, I hope you find, as I do, that the Werner building is worthy of landmark status. Not only for its extraordinary architectural frontispiece, but for its six Green Men unique to any other building in the city of New York, and for its historical heritage of the Ninth Avenue El, a perspective that has given visual pleasure to thousands of spectators every day for more than sixty years.

by Joe Zito, copyrighted, all rights reserved,originally published in the Clinton Chronicles, March 2004

Hell's Kitchen, NYC ~ Two Working Class Tenements ~ by Joe Zito

An unusual corner site in Hell's Kitchen, the southwest corner of Ninth Avenue & 48th Street, shows two adjoining sets of working class tenement buildings, standing side-by-side.

On the right, two taller buildings are five-stories tall with a triangular welcome sign on the cornice, painted black.  We see the two adjacent smaller buildings at the left, 691-687 Ninth Avenue, are four-stories tall with a flat roof straight across both.  The smaller buildlings are older, constructed of dark stone, are plain and except for window lintels to support the the opening made by the windows, have no decoration.

The two taller buildings on the right, 695-693 Ninth Avenue, are constructed of bright red brick, with taller wider windows.  Across the heads of the windows runs a continuous band of creamy =-white stone across the wall which creates a crenellated pattern by going up to the top and down the sides of the window, then moves across the facade until it goes up and over the top of the next window.  The crenellated pattern allows the builder to grant superior status to the tenement.  The taller buildings are not only larger but brighter and look "newer".

We can date both sets of buildings by their modes of public transportation, as well as their building codes as working class tenements.

The older shorter buildings were contemporary with the Horse Car, in the 1850s, while the newer taller buildings were constructed at the advent of the Elevated trains, in the late 1870s.  The  1850 Horse Car, pulled by a horse, actually ran along rails built into the street, like those used by later trolley cars.  The Elevated trains ran above ground, on rails at the second story level of the tenements, and reached Hell's Kitchen in 1878.

Street rails for Horse Cars are long gone.  But we still see the good-sized squares along the sidewalk curbs -- now filled with trees, bricks and plants -- that originally held the square iron pillars that supported tracks for the Elevated trains overhead.  These squares can be studied as perfect examples of urban archaeology.

We can also date this unusual set of two buildings, by the Building Codes of New York City.  The New Building code of   1901 required a wider building with a large court in the center to provide air and light to almost every window.  This is when they stopped calling building units tenements, and started advertising them as apartments.

In 1901, when the New Building Code was passed, the name "Old-Law Tenement" was given to the previous code of 1878.  The 1878 plan required an air-shaft to allow light into the center of a tenement.  The plan looks like a dumbbell from above, a name by which the Old Law Tenements are often called.

This Old-Law of 1878 went into effect when the Croton Aqueduct began to supply sufficient water to New York City after 1872.  Before that, tenements of the 1840s and 1850s had one toilet for each floor, and it was out in the hall.  With four apartments on each floor, the toilet was used by all four apartments.  These old tenements have not been described or named.  I have in my writings, given them the name "Pre-Law Tenements.  They can be recognized by a tiny bathroom window in the middle of the tenement wall, front or rear.  These Pre-Law tenements are no more than four stories high, often decorated by arched lintels above the windows, frequently called "eyebrow" lintels.

So we can categorize the two taller set of buildings as "Old-Law Tenements" built between the late 1870s and 1901, and the shorter set as "Pre-Law" of the 1850s-60s.  We have seized on the southwest corner of 9th Avenue and 48th Street to study the historic development of tenement architecture in Hell's Kitchen.

by Joe Zito, copyrighted, all rights reserved, originally published in the Clinton Chronicle, August 2008

Hell's Kitchen - Paneled Brick Architecture ~ By Joe Zito

702 Ninth Avenue, on the Northeast corner of West 48th Street, a five storied tenement built in the 1830s features an 1880 specialty of the Panel Brick architectural style. Because its long side street wall presents a well-balanced almost perfectly symmetrical facade decorated in red brick panels, it will be discussed in detail.

Stand across the street to enjoy its broad expanse. One is immediately impressed by four long, vertical brick panels that rise from the second to the top story, creating a decorative all-over composition.

A more intensive study will bring to light a central axis that divides the four panels into two on each side of the axis. This axis is articulated by a foot and a half brick strip that runs from the second to the top story. The central axis’ unique design of six layers of red bricks on a vertical strip plays a significant part in dividing the four panels in half, two on its west side and two on its east side.

Of the two vertical panels on its west side, the end one is the geometric version of a chimney stack that encloses single vertical slots, triple vertical slots, figures of a diamond and an odd shaped figure near the roof. The diamond shape is a hallmark of the Panel Brick Style. In this style there are no forms borrowed from Classical Greek & Rome, such as swags, scrolls, or festoons.

Of the two panels on the west side of the central axis, the one next to the axis is also designed with straight line figures and a small cross which is another hallmark of the panel brick style. Though the two end panels of the original four-paneled composition are identical, the two middle panels adjacent to the central axis are not, for there is a slight difference in the size of their windows. The windows on every floor of the central axis are larger than the ones on the east side. Probably, the architect, following the dictum of form following function, provided for more light on the staircase landing on the west side of the axis. In architectural glossaries, a central axis has always been defined as an imaginary line that divides a facade into two symmetrical parts. In this case, the architect decided to reify an imaginary line by creating an actual real central axis.

Making an allowance for the slight difference in one of the panels, the essential symmetrical relationship of the four panels may be codified in the rhythmic scheme: A-B-B-A (A for the two outer panels at the ends of the wall, and B for the two inner panels in the middle.)

Now looking for smaller details, above the second floor window and below the third floor window, a rectangular panel in red brick is decorated in a checkerboard pattern. To accentuate the red brick wall, contrasting light grey belt courses run up and down and above the window frames. On the sidewalk level, the architect provided a whimsical touch by placing the foliate head of a pagan Medieval Green Man in the keystone of the archway of the cellar door, where for many years it has been a good luck charm for the building’s residents. Just in case one has forgotten the location of the building, on the northeast corner just above the ground floor, there is a plaque that reads “49th/S and 9th/A”.

The Panel Brick style in its variety of patterns enabled architects to design middle and working class tenements in durable plain red brick material without incurring the cost of expensive hand carved stone.

A jewel of decorative brickwork in a tenemental setting, ornamented in colorful patterns, 702 Ninth Avenue is an expression of Hell’s Kitchen’s pride in its wealth of historic architecture.

By Joe Zito, copyrighted, all rights reserved, originally published in the Clinton Chronicla, January 2007.