School’s out!

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Sunset over New Jersey. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023. The city has had perfect Summer weather for the past couple of weeks, even longer. With daily temps in the mid- to upper 80s and cooling down to the low 70s and lower in the evening. It feels like good luck when you consider the weather going on all around us and all over the world.

But the city is remarkably quiet; the motor traffic seems lighter. The scooter traffic, however, which includes motorcycles and motorized bikes, is getting heavier. These motorized movers follow no rules, no routes and no lights. It’s a habit that has developed from a new way of moving around.

It is particularly threatening to the foot traffic because many of the operators of the motorized two wheelers don’t seem to be interested in the safety of the pedestrians crossing the same routes. It’s what we’re seeing all the time, day and night especially in the busier sections of the city. It’s obviously dangerous simply because there are no rules (to obey). Eventually, as the problem grows with time, it will require some rules.

Meanwhile, back in the mainly usually quiet neighborhood of mine, I again came across this painting by Maurice Prendergast, an American post-Impressionist painter (originally seen on a wonderful website I often look at called Ephemeral New York). Prendergast lived in the last half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th, and I’ve been familiar with his New York scenes for most of my adult life. Their colors are compelling and engaging. Many of his pictures have water in them — either the sea, the river, or in the case of Venice, the canals.

Maurice Prendergast, early 1900s.

What especially caught my eye was the caption wondering if the scene were actually a children’s playground in Carl Schurz Park on the East River. And since Carl Schurz Park is only a few footsteps from my door, and I visit it daily walking the dogs, I looked very closely.

If the year were 1901, which I gathered from the piece it might very well have been, there was no FDR Drive then, and no elevated promenade (The John Finley Walk) at the riverside. The land back then went down to the shore. Nearby were new neighborhoods including Henderson Place which was built in the 1890s.

Henderson Place, 1927. Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 

There were also originally some pieces of sandy beach in Manhattan when the Europeans came to settle. The island across the water could easily be what is now Roosevelt Island, but was then known as Blackwell’s Island, with Queens in the background. It definitely is not southern Manhattan on the East River. Nor is there any other island of that shape on the eastern side of the East River with that much industrial activity on the eastern side of the channel where it is divided by the island. The only question is, where is the lighthouse, known as the Blackwell Island Light at the northern tip of the island?

Before I went out to dinner, I went down to the Promenade to get a photo of Prendergast’s children’s playground. It wasn’t called Carl Schurz Park then although it was a park. It was named in honor of Mr. Schurz a few years later.

The vista that Prendergast painted more than a century ago. In the painting, you can see the sailboat in the upper center of it, coming out of the eastern channel (the other side of the island). That could be what is now Roosevelt Island on the other side where you can see trees and a house. On the far side of that eastern channel you can see Queens, the shoreline of which was originally industrial.
An oil tanker moves north pushed by a tug. None of what exists today — the buildings, the bridge, the boats — existed at the time of Prendergast’s painting of the East River. Except the River and the land.
A view of the East River looking south, with Roosevelt Island on the other side and the Edward Koch 59th Street Bridge beyond. Where the FDR is was mainly countryside, out of town for affluent New Yorkers to occupy during the warmer months.

There’s a wondrous moment for me at the hour when the facades of the buildings take on a soft pink glow. It grows from brighter to darker within the quarter hour, and at the moment in this photo it is the dusk in the city. Then there are the pink and grey clouds beyond, passing over the East River.

A party boat moving down river past the apartment towers of Roosevelt Island, at dusk. If this were a painting, rather than a flubbed camera shot, I’d be a genius.

A little history lesson. East End Avenue was named Avenue B when the grid was planned in 1811. York Avenue (named for the famous Sergeant York) was Avenue A; the uptown roads on the grid. The neighborhood was originally part of the working class Yorkville area of tenements, with some industry often nearby.

Looking north along East End Avenue with Chapin School in view. 11:00 PM.

There’s not much traffic on the roads, for a Manhattan thoroughfare at the end of the day. On the weekends there is even less. By midnight, there’s only an occasional car passing by.

The building on the left (in this photo), the northwest corner of East 84th Street, is the Chapin School which was founded by a Miss Maria Bowen Chapin in 1901. School is not in session so there’s nary a light on.

Delano & Aldrich — who designed many landmark buildings in New York (and elsewhere) such as the Colony Club, the Knickerbocker as well as private mansions many of which are still standing — were the architects. This was an important development of the area at the time. In the blocks below 84th to 79th Streets, it was still small factories.

The new building opened in 1928. It has long been one of the top private girls schools in New York and has a lot of fame in its alumna, including Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill; Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Lily Pulitzer, Blanchette Rockefeller, Tricia Nixon Cox and her sister Julie Eisenhower; Queen Noor of Jordan (when she was Lisa Halaby), Vera Wang, Brenda Frazier, Sister Parish, Sunny von Bulow, Stockard Channing; Aerin Lauder, Jane Lauder, the name just a handful of prominent women of the past century who were young students there.

The original Delano & Aldrich building was expanded years ago, adding four more floors and radically departing from the classic architecture. On top of that was another expansion ($140 million) completed a few years later (and irking many a neighbor in the process), which included a new performing arts center, gymnasium, fitness center, a suspended indoor running track, locker rooms, an athletic training room, and offices for coaches, not to mention a fenced-in rooftop turf field and playground.

The Delano & Aldrich-designed Chapin school in 1928.

School’s out!

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