Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Open House New York 2011

St. Paul's Chapel circa 1905 (the pews have since been removed).
The hotel in 1932 (note the massive gas tank in the back).
The pulpit of St. Paul's Chapel.
The gazebo in the back of the Mount Vernon Hotel.
The front yard of the Mount Vernon Hotel.
The back of the hotel.
Another shot of the back garden of the Mount Vernon Hotel.
A bench and gazebo in the back garden of the hotel.
Another sitting area in the back of the hotel.
The 1909 Queensboro Bridge towers over the front yard of the hotel.
The sign out front of the hotel.
The front of the hotel.
A small bridge leading from the second floor to a neighboring garden next to the hotel.
A fireman's coat from 9/11 on display in St. Paul's Chapel.
An 1785 painting of the Governor's seal above his box in the chapel.
Chairs in the Governor's box in the chapel.
Looking up the main isle of the chapel.
One of the first paintings of the Presidential seal, hanging over his box in the chapel.
President Washington's chair in the chapel.
A painting of St. Paul's in 1799.
The Mount Vernon Hotel today.
One of the sitting rooms in the hotel.
The hotel in 1924, its last year as Con Ed's headquarters (note the large gas tank in back).
An aerial view of the hotel from the '40s.
The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden.
St. Paul's Chapel circa 1895.
St. Paul's graveyard in the early '70s with the Twin Towers being built across the street.
This past weekend was Open House New York in the big city, the annual event where buildings of note open up their doors to the public free of charge.  This year, I took a look around the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden, at 421 East 61st Street between 1st and York Avenues.  Built in 1799, it was originally a carriage house for the summer mansion of Col. William Stephens Smith and his wife Abigail Adams Smith, the daughter of our second President John Adams.  The mansion was located where the Bed, Bath & Beyond is now on 1st Avenue between 60th and 61st.  The mansion burned to the ground before the couple even got to use it once, and in 1826 the abandoned carriage house was converted into the Mount Vernon Hotel, a "day hotel" for the well-to-do who wanted to get away from the city, which back then ended at 14th Street.  The museum guide explained that a "day hotel" in those days was about equivalent to a modern-day country club.  The rich would travel up there during the day for recreation, but not sleep there.  The house actually only had one small bedroom.  The hotel was named for the home of George Washington in Virginia.  The first President remained a popular cult figure decades after his death, and it was very common to see his portrait in hotels, taverns, and other public places.

If you get a chance to visit, I highly recommend it.  Walking up the stone steps and on the the wrap-around lawn to the front door is like suddenly walking into the country, I found it to be a very strange feeling.  The front entrance brought me to the dining room, where a dinner scene from around the 1820s could be found.  Turtle soup is being served, with the shell being re-used as main bowl.  The door to the left leads to the kitchen, and to the right is a living room with reproductions of old newspapers that listed the wages for different jobs.  Unskilled laborers made about $2.50 a month.  In total there are eight rooms decorated in an 1820s-style with furniture donated throughout the years.  Unfortunately, no one is allowed to take pictures inside, so you'll have to see it for yourself!

On a very interesting note, I learned that after being a private home for a number of years in the late 1800s, the house was bought by the Standard Gas Light Company (today's Con Edison) in 1905 when the area was becoming more industrialized.  It remained Con Ed's main headquarters until 1924 when it was purchased by the Colonial Dames of America and turned into a museum by 1939.  I saw a number of pictures from the '20s and '30s of the house surrounded by massive gas tanks.  Out of gratitude for Con Ed almost completely keeping the house unchanged, all its employees are given free admission to this day.

Since I was on a colonial "high" if you will, I decided to go down to St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway and Fulton Street, one of the oldest buildings in Manhattan, where Washington led a procession to a thanksgiving service here from the old Federal Hall on his inauguration day.  The chapel still has a lot of displays devoted to 9/11 and the rescue efforts it took part in.  The governor's box on the south side, a sign notes, was used for supplies, while the President's box, directly across, was used as a podiatrist's station.  Since many of Washington's men went without proper footwear during the Revolution, the chapel considered it a touching tribute.  Above it is one of the oldest paintings of the presidential seal, dating back to 1785, which was probably hanging there during Washington's presidency.  Noting that the bird is solid black, a sign read that Benjamin Franklin probably had a lot of influence on the seal's design since he was a leading advocate for making the wild turkey, rather than the bald eagle, the national animal.

When I had come down that afternoon, choir practice was in full swing, so I decided I shouldn't bother them.  I took a look around the old graveyard and then headed back uptown.  For anyone living in the city, I highly recommend taking advantage of Open House New York each October as an opportunity to learn about some of its most fascinating buildings free of charge.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

Looking up Wall Street at the old Federal Hall and the old Trinity Church in 1789, the year of Washington's inauguration.
Wall Street in 1797, showing the Tontine Coffee House, with the old Federal Hall to the left, and the East River to the right.
The intersection of Broad and Wall Streets at night.
A protester's sign.
Looking down Wall Street to the South Street Seaport.
The George Washington statue in front of Federal Hall.
A police horse, the streets were full of them.
Trinity Church, Broadway and Wall Street.
Looking down Wall Street from Broadway.
The New York Stock Exchange at night.
With all the news about the Occupy Wall Street protests, I decided to take the 4 Train down there and see what action I could find, while discovering the history of this famous old street.  For the most part, I didn't see too much other than a sign up against the Trinity Church fence when I got off the train at Broadway and Wall Street that said, "Michael Moore for President" and another protest group holding a "Don't Tread On Me" flag chanting "End the Fed!" -- two opposite ends of the spectrum. 

Walking around the hilly streets of downtown, it reminded me of the wilderness that was once the old city.  George Washington's statue stands on the spot where he had his inauguration, on the site of the old Federal Hall which stood there from 1700-1812, also where the Bill of Rights was passed by Congress.  At the beginning of Wall Street, at Broadway, a church has stood since 1698, but the current structure dates back to 1846.  Although it's generally accepted that Wall Street was named in the mid-1600s for the earthen wall that guarded the northern boundary of the New Amsterdam settlement, others think it is derived from the thirty Walloon families from Belgium that arrived on the ship "Nieu Nederlandt" in 1624, some of the first European settlers.  However, by the 1640s, Peter Styvesant collaborated with the city government to build a more permanent wall from Pearl Street, where the eastern shoreline was then, to the western shoreline at Trinity Place.

The world's biggest stock exchange started under a buttonwood tree on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway in the late 1700s, where traders and speculators would meet to trade securities.  The group was formalized in 1792, with the Buttonwood Agreement, which traders signed in a promise to charge each other a standard, structured rate.

With the stock market crash of 2008, there has been a hollowing-out of the middle class.  The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and people are getting fed up.  I don't know what the solution is really -- many people believe that capitalism works, that it is the American way, that capitalism equals freedom.  Socialism, on the other hand, doesn't work all that great, and leads to too much government involvement in people's lives, and in a way they're right.  But I've got to say, a little loyalty would've been nice when I was abruptly laid-off from a job I was very loyal to and then never able to recover.  I don't want to complain too much, but I feel as though these rich Wall Street types have affected my life in a very negative way.  I try to stay positive, but the future sometimes looks very uncertain.