Archive for August, 2016

BRTTrolleyChildren

Children play in a stalled, empty trolley car that wasn’t blown up during the Brooklyn Rapid Transit strike in July 1899. 

On July 16, 1899, a small group of motormen and conductors for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT) street car lines went on strike. These men left their empty cars stalled in the road, and then, in some instances, used dynamite to blow them up.

Not wanting a repeat of the deadly riots that took place during the January 1895 BRT strike, the New York City Police Department immediately sent 25 patrol wagons from Manhattan and the Bronx to Brooklyn to rein in the trouble-making strikers. As it turns out, the police weren’t needed for long. A large number of workers refused to go out this time around, and the strike came to a quiet end within a week.

For the policemen of Manhattan’s Leonard Street Station — aka the new Eighth Precinct — doing strike duty in Brooklyn meant spending a lot of time riding on the operational trolley cars looking for trouble. It was during this week that they “adopted” a big, brown, half-starved shaggy dog (sort of a cross between a Newfoundland and a setter) who would change their lives for the better. They named him Strike.

19LeonardStreet1999

When this story takes place, the Eighth Precinct station house was at 19-21 Leonard Street in Manhattan’s Tribeca. Here’s the building as it appeared in 1999.

Right from the start, Strike was on the job with his fellow police officers. As the men road back and forth on the trolley lines, Strike would leap from the car and start biting or barking at any strikers causing excitement.  To reward this stray dog for his duties, the policemen of the Eighth Precinct brought him back to Leonard Street, ordered a collar with his new name, and had him properly licensed.

Strike’s Daily Routine

Every morning, Strike would attend roll call by sitting at the sergeant’s desk and waiting for all the men’s names to be called. During the day, he spent a lot of time outside the station, where the neighborhood children would gather to play with him.

Strike liked the children, but his favorite people were the uniformed police officers (the plain clothes officers had to be at the station quite a while before he’d warm up to them). He also liked all the restaurant keepers within the boundaries of the precinct — especially those he had “trained” to feed him.

Three times a day, Strike would visit his favorite restaurants (he’d mixed it up so he wouldn’t wear out his welcome), and wait for someone to bring him a package of meat scraps tied with string. Placing the string in his mouth, Strike would carry the food back to the police station, where an officer had to properly lay it out in his favorite eating spot in the back room. Sometimes the officers would give him a nickel, which he would carry to the bakery to purchase his favorite ginger cake.

One day about five years after Strike moved into the Leonard Street station house, an officer found a Newfoundland on the downtown platform of the Chambers Street elevated station. The dog had a collar that said “J.J. Atkinson, Raymond, Lafayette” and he was running about as if he had lost his master and was hunting for him. The police thought the dog must have come from Lafayette, N.J.; I hope they eventually realized that there was a J.J. Atkinson saloon on the corner of Raymond Street (now Ashland Place) and Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn!

The policeman brought the dog back to the station house, where he stayed for quite a while (courtesy of Captain Dennis Sweeney). During this dog’s extended visit, Strike learned to bark longer and louder in order to encourage the waiters to give him more food so that he could share his meal with his new canine friend.

BroadwayatLeonard

Strike visited his favorite restaurants every day, like those on Broadway at Leonard Street, pictured here in this montage of photos taken in 1895. NYPL digital collections

Strike Makes a Few Collars

Over the years, Strike assisted in many arrests. One time when a prisoner tried to escape the station house, Strike grabbed him by the coattails and dragged him back. Another time he helped Policeman Cleveland capture two vagrants who had been begging throughout the district for some time.

As the story goes, Strike was asleep on the rug under the sergeant’s desk when he heard the rapping of a policeman’s club outside. He and Policeman Brennan ran outside the station and got a glimpse of Policeman Cleveland in pursuit of two men dressed in United States Navy uniforms. Strike took off and caught one man by his trousers while the officers caught the other man. Both men were charged with vagrancy (they weren’t actual sailors).

Strike was also skilled in delivering notes for the men. If he was out with a roundsman and the officer wanted to send a message to the station house, Strike would carry the note in his mouth to the sergeant and return promptly with an answer, if there was one.

StrikePoliceDog

Here is Strike carrying his package of meat scraps to Policeman Furlong in July 1906 (New York Daily Tribune)

Strike Rescues a Few Kittens

Although Strike was known as a cat hater, that all changed on the night of June 8, 1906. According to the news reports, at about 8 p.m. while walking home with his dinner on Hudson Street, Strike came upon a cat and dog fighting. Apparently, the mother cat had been nursing her kittens in a doorway when the dog attacked and killed her.

With three motherless kittens staring up at him, Strike dropped his meat package, tackled the bulldog, and put one of the kittens in his mouth. He carried the kitten to the back room of the police station where several policemen were playing dominoes, dropped the kitten at their feet, and ran back out. A minute later, he returned with the second kitten.

On his next trip out, Roundsmen Borener and Saul followed him to 78 Hudson Street, where they found Roundsmen Blohm bending over a dead cat and dog. Strike took charge of the third kitten and carried it back to the police station.

A month later, the kittens were still at the station house. On sunny days, they could be seen on the steps tumbling all over their canine caregiver and demanding his attention.

A Brief History of the Leonard Street Police Station

Throughout the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries, the area of Manhattan that we call Tribeca was open land, much of which was held by Trinity Church (to the west) and by Anthony Rutgers (the swampland to the east). In 1741, Leonard Lispenard, a leaseholder of a large tract of land belonging to Trinity Church, married Rutgers’s daughter Elsie.

After Rutger’s death in 1746, most of his holdings went to Leonard and Elsie, and the large area to the east became known as Lispenard’s Meadows. Leonard Street between present-day Hudson Street and West Broadway was the southern tip of the meadows; the center of the meadows is about where Lispenard Street is today.

LispenardsMeadows2

Leonard Street was laid out around 1797 as a twenty-seven-and-a-half-foot-wide street and ceded to the city in 1800. It was widened in 1806 and immediately developed with frame and masonry residences, none of which remain standing today.

LispenardsMeadows3

In the 1700s, Lispenard’s Meadows was home to one of the city’s earliest race tracks. As noted in the American Magazine in 1899, the track was conveniently located near the country seats of Peter Warren, Abraham Mortier, William Bayard, and James Tauncey.

19-21 Leonard Street

Designed by Nathanial D. Bush as a police station and prison for the City of New York, 19-21 Leonard Street was constructed in 1868 on two lots previously occupied by masonry residences. The four-story Italianate building of red brick and white stone trim also featured apartments for lodging indigent persons.

The station house was occupied by the Fifth Precinct — renamed the Eighth Precinct in May 1898 — which had previously been stationed at 49 Leonard Street. The Fifth Precinct was bounded by Warren Street, the west track of the West Street Railroad, Canal Street, and Broadway; it was also known as “the dry goods district.”

LeonardStreetLodgingRoom1890

In the late 1800s, the Leonard Street Police Station served as a lodging house for indigents. As photographer Jacob Riis notes, “At the police station the roads of the tramp and the tough again converge.” NYPL digital collections

Strike Leaves This World

As Strike got older, the hot summers took a toll on him. By 1908, he was about 17 years old and had lost almost all his teeth. Following several illnesses, it was decided that it was time to put him out of his misery. On September 13, 1908, Lieutenant Von Beborsky was called on to humanely dispatch the beloved mascot.

Five years after Strike’s death, on December 1, 1913, the precinct was abolished and the building was vacated and converted for commercial use.

Over the years, occupants have included Cordley & Hayes Corporation, the Standard Rice Company, the Ronald Paper Company, the Hailer Elevator Company, and the Empire Elevator Corp. Today the old station house at 19-21 Leonard Street — where policemen, vagrants, prisoners, cats, and a dog named Strike once converged — is a condominium with five apartments.

19 Leonard Street New York

19-21 Leonard Street was converted into condo lofts in the mid-1990s.

For more on the history of 19-21 Leonard Street, check out Daytonian In Manhattan, who, ironically, posted a story about the station house the same day as I posted mine.

 

MortonHouseUnionSquareColor

The Union Square Theatre on East 14th Street was constructed within the walls of the Union Place Hotel (later, the Morton House) in 1871. In 1887, a year after taking over the management, James Hill made extensive renovations to the exterior and interior of the theater.

In Part I of the Old New York cat story, we met Union Square Jim, the large, blue-eyed, orange tabby mascot of the old Union Square Theatre in New York City. Jim was born in the theater sometime around 1886, a year after James Hill took over as manager of the theater.

Jim was certainly well-loved by all the actors and stage hands — especially when he performed his many tricks for them — but his favorite person was janitor Michael Sweeney. Every night as Michael made his rounds, Jim would be at his side.

UnionSquareMap1885

The old Union Square Theatre, located at 58 East 14th Street, is noted in the top left quadrant of this 1885 map. The adjacent Star Theatre (previously Wallack’s Theatre; demolished in 1902) is just south on Broadway at 13th Street. 

The Great Fall

One afternoon during the summer of 1887, a skylight on the roof of the theater sprung a leak during a heavy rainstorm. Michael reportedly went on the roof to fix it, and he took his feline friend along to get some fresh air and sunshine.

As Michael was in the progress of repairing the skylight, he heard a loud crash. Looking up from what he was doing, he saw that Jim had fallen through another skylight and was frantically trying to hang on to the framework with one paw.

Right before Michael’s eyes, Jim lost his “grip” and fell down about 80 feet to the center of the auditorium below.

UnionSquareTheatreInterior

Jim fell about 80 feet from the roof skylight to the auditorium seating of the Union Square Hotel.

Michael rushed down the stairs and ran into the auditorium, where he found Jim lying motionless between two rows of chairs. Micheal carried the unconscious cat into his room, where he tended to his feline friend as best he could with alcohol and bandages.

Two weeks later, Jim was alert and back on his feet again, making the rounds with Michael as if the plunge from the roof had never happened. On September 26, 1887, he made his accidental stage debut during opening night of The Henrietta, a romantic comedy written by Bronson Howard and produced by the comedians Stuart Robson and William Henry Crane.

JMHill

James M. Hill took over the Union Square Theatre in 1885.

The Union Square Theatre Fire of 1888

On the afternoon of February 28, 1888, a fire broke out in a loft between the ceiling and roof of the auditorium of the theater. The flames were discovered just before 1 p.m. by stage carpenters and painters, who had been working on the stage with Ben Teal, the stage manager. James Hill was also in the building at the time; one of the stage hands ran into his office to warn him of the fire.

Union Square Jim was in the basement of the building, but no one came to warn the cat as he slept peacefully in his wicker basket.

The large fire caused extensive damage as it burned through the partitions that separated the theater from the Morton House (all the hotel guests had been safely evacuated). The two upper stories of the hotel facing Union Square caught fire, and the roof of the theater was demolished.

When the firemen got the fire under control at about 4 p.m., the walls of the hotel and theater were still intact.

UnionSquareFire

Most of the damage to the theater was caused by the freezing water, which destroyed the seats, curtains, and stage scenery.

Union Square Jim Is Saved

“Has anyone seen Jim?” Michael Sweeney asked everyone when he arrived on the scene later that afternoon. When no one answered, Michael asked one of the firemen to help him find the mascot cat.

Using a lantern, the two men made their way through the basement corridor to the dressing room where Jim spent his days sleeping. There, in the flooded room, they found Jim perched on top of his basket, trying to stay dry with no means of escape in sight.

That evening, there was a reception in honor of Jim at the Criterion, followed by a “general jollification” at the Hotel Hungaria across the street.  James Hill told everyone he would have the theater reopened on March 26 with Syndey Rosenfeld’s A Possible Case.

Three months after the fire, The New York Times reported:

“Jim was in troubled spirits and was moving about with an air of dejection. The chaotic and unsafe condition of the old building since the fire drove the petted darling Jim to the narrow confines of the property room in the rear of the theater, as dark and uninviting as a tomb. He was kept by himself in this room, on a 15-foot chain. He has been slowly withering in spirit and flesh in this chilly back room, and last week refused to eat at all. This alarmed the old stage hands, and after a solemn council it was decided to take Jim each night to the Madison Square Theatre in the hope that it would revive his health and spirits.”

Jim’s mood did change as soon as he saw his old friends at the theater. According to the news article, “He purred, jumped from chair to tables, frisked about the carpet, and peeked through the curtain from time to time to watch the assembling audience.”

One night during the performance of A Possible Cause, Jim decided to take the stage again, this time leaping onto the lead actor during a very dramatic scene. Jim brought the house down with laughter as he purred and licked the actor’s head and forehead in “a delirium of delight.” Although he was led off stage, there were many bursts of laughter as the drama progressed, and, after the last curtain, repeated calls were made for the theatrical cat to come and take a bow.

I do not know for sure what happened to Jim, although a story about him in the book “Lady Lee and Other Animals Stories” by Harmon Lee Ensign suggests that he died at the Madison Square Theatre in a very dramatic fashion when he pounced on some flames on stage (an actresses’ dress caught fire when she walked too close to the gas lights). I have a feeling the author made this up (a small news article in the May 5, 1890, issue of The Sandusky Register suggests that Jim died from an illness after an unsuccessful visit with Dr. Dovey, a veterinarian on 4th Street.

The Demise of the Union Square Theatre

A year after the fire, the Union Square Theatre reopened. It had been almost completely rebuilt to the designs of John Terhune and Leopold Eidlitz (although some of the design was by Charles P. Palmer, the manager of the property). Because of the cramped site, Palmer developed a horseshoe balcony that rose in the center to make good use of the high, narrow space. The interior was painted in old gold and ivory, and the proscenium arch (the part of the stage in front of the curtain) featured a large medallion with a painting of Shakespeare. The hand-carved cherry chairs were upholstered in electric blue.

BFKeithUnionSquare

In the 1890s, the old Union Square Theatre was a vaudeville theater operated by B.F. Keith and Edward Albee. NYPL Digital Collections

In 1893,  Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee,  the most powerful and successful vaudeville producers of their time, purchased the lease for the Union Square Theatre and completely remodeled it. The offered continuous vaudeville — George M. Cohan made his New York debut on its stage.

In 1906 the theater exhibited some early motion pictures; in 1908, it was converted once again to showcase only films. As B.F. Keith’s, the theater dabbled in “the most dubious activities that a picture house can indulge in,” according to The New York Herald Tribune (alluding to racy films and lectures about sex.)  The theater was sold and renamed the Acme in 1921, which featured primarily Soviet Russian films.

BFKeithAlbee

In May 1920, the old Morton House (then called the Hotel Churchill), B.F. Keith’s theater, and Union Square Hotel were sold at auction for the benefit of the Courtlandt Palmer heirs. The theater continued to run films until 1936, which is when the ground floor was  divided for some dry goods stores, destroying the orchestra section of the auditorium.

In 1986, the Philips International Corporation acquired the site and completely vacated the buildings. Demolition of the theater began in 1989, and, a few later, as the building was peeled away, this amazing photograph revealed the ruined remnants of the old Union Square Theatre  — complete with its finishes still brown with smoke from the fire that almost took the last of the nine lives of Union Square Jim.

UnionSquare2016.2_HatchingCat

Here is 58 East 14th Street today. Photo by P. Gavan

 

 

 

Part I of an Old New York Cat Story

VintageCatHat

This is not Jim, but I can imagine him looking quite similar to this vintage theatrical cat.

Like most cats that became the popular mascots of New York City police stations, fire stations, hotels, and theaters in the 1800s and 1900s, Jim began his life as a vagrant cat without friends or influence.  It didn’t take him long, however, to win the hearts of the managers, actors, and patrons of the old Union Square Theatre.

In fact, one might say he literally stole the show.

As a reporter for the Detroit Free Press wrote in a feature story about the cat on August 14, 1887, Union Square Jim was “either an exceptional cat or a proof of my ignorance concerning the kind.” The reporter noted that the large sorrel cat (think “Morris” from the old 9-Lives commercials) was first and foremost a sociable cat who loved human companionship.

Jim made his home under the stage of the Union Square Theatre at 58 East 14th Street (between Broadway and Fourth Avenue), which at that time was under the management of James M. Hill. His favorite person was janitor Michael Sweeney, but he also enjoyed visiting all the members of the acting companies in their dressing rooms before every performance.

Jim could also do quite a few tricks – for example, he could “sing,” shake paws, and stand on his hind legs — and he found himself in the spotlight on more than one occasion. Let’s just say that Jim had a knack for turning a sorrowful and serious drama scene into a comedy act that brought down the house with laughter and howls of delight.

unionsquaretheater1870s.jpg

The Union Square Theatre opened on September 11, 1871. This photo was taken between December 1, 1874, and June 15, 1875, which is when “The Two Orphans” starring James O’Neill (father of Eugene) ran at the theater (then under the management of Albert M. Palmer).  NYPL Digital Collections

Our story begins in 1886, in an unused dressing room at the Union Square Theatre. There, according to the book “Lady Lee and Other Animals Stories” by Harmon Lee Ensign, a quiet brindle cat named Roxy gave birth to five kittens. The kittens were discovered by janitor Henry Sweeney, who cared for the mother cat for several weeks so she in turn could feed her kittens.

According to Ensign’s version of the story, the mother cat was severely injured (broken ribs and other injuries) when a disgruntled actor kicked her against a corridor wall. Although she suffered greatly, Roxy cared for her kittens for five more days until she passed away.

UnionSquareTheatreInterior

The interior of the Union Square Theatre

Within a few days, four of the five kittens also died (Henry tried to save them, but he did not know how). The smallest survived, and within a few weeks, poor little Jim was a bright and mischievous kitten.

Now, I have no historical proof of this specific part of the story — author Ensign, a New York animal rights supporter and philanthropist, may have taken liberty to embellish the tale of Jim’s birth for his book — but it makes for a good narrative.

UnionSquareTheatre1871Color

A color illustration of the photo of the theater shown above. NYPL Digital Collections

As a kitten, Jim spent most of the day under the stage, either in the dark passageways or in the dressing room. At night, after the final curtain came down and the crowds dispersed, Jim would follow Henry on his janitorial rounds. Man and cat would walk together from the cellar, where the scenery was stored, to the roof, where the moonlight came streaming through the skylights.

During their time together, Henry taught Jim many tricks, like standing erect, walking and “boxing” on his hind legs, and flicking his tail to the left or right on command. Jim was quite intelligent, and over time he also learned how to put on a show by weeping in mock mews, posing like different actors, and performing numerous acrobatic tricks.

HeleneMojeska

Madame Helena Modjeska

A few months after his first birthday, Jim was introduced to the theater proper, where he mingled with stagehands, actors, and other prominent people of the New York theater world. He was cuddled and coddled by his admirers and friends, who all considered him the mascot of the institution. And he was welcomed by manager James Hill, who considered him a good-luck charm for the theater (Jim would discharge any employee who tried to harm the cat, after giving the employee a lecture on animal cruelty).

One of Jim’s biggest fans was Madame Helena Modjeska, a renowned actress who specialized in Shakespearean and tragic roles. She gave him a wicker cradle stuffed with rich bedding materials. Jim was quite partial to this bed, and reportedly would not sleep anywhere else.

Jim also had a lady admirer in Bangor, Maine, who once sent him a plump package of catnip, which, according to The New York Times (February 19, 1888), he enjoyed “with the relish of an epicure.”

Union Square Jim Makes His Stage Debut

On September 26, 1887, The Henrietta, a romantic comedy written by Bronson Howard and produced by the comedians Stuart Robson and William Henry Crane, opened at the Union Square Theatre. Jim also chose to make his debut on the stage that night. According to a story in The New York Times, Jim got a bit frisky on stage and almost spoiled a scene.

StuartRobson1887

Stuart Robson as Bertie the Lamb in The Henrietta at the Union Square Theatre in 1887. NYPL Digital Collections

Robson and Crane were angry at the large orange tabby at first, but they came to love Jim over the next few months. They even offered to buy Jim from Manager Hill and sought to have his name changed to Henrietta. Mr. Hill had to decline because one, Jim was a male, and two, he brought good luck to the theater (at least up to that time…)

A Brief History of the Union Square Theatre

In 1871, Sheridan Shook, a former butter and cheese merchant and collector with the Internal Review Service under Abraham Lincoln, signed a ten-year lease with Courtlandt Palmer, a wealthy hardware merchant and real estate speculator who owned what was then called the Union Place Hotel.

Shook renamed the hotel the Maison Doree and hired chief constructor H.M. Simons to build a variety (vaudeville) theater within the walls of the hotel. Construction began on May 1, 1871, and in a few months, a a 55- x 140-foot theater that could seat about 1,500 people replaced what had been the grand dining room of the Union Place Hotel.

The main entrance to the theater was on 14th Street and a separate entrance to the gallery and stage was on Fourth Avenue.

UnionPlaceHotel1850

The Union Place Hotel, on on the southwest corner of Broadway and 14th Street, was constructed in 1849. In 1871, the Union Square Theatre was constructed within the walls of the hotel. That year, the hotel was renamed the Maison Doree by Sheridan Shook. In 1881, it was renamed the Morton House Hotel. NYPL Digital Collections  

UnionPlaceHotel_HatchingCat

Here’s an earlier illustration of the Union Place Hotel, immediately to the left of Broadway. Grace Church on Broadway and 11th Street is in the background.

The new theater opened on September 11, 1871, under the management of Robert W. Butler, a variety manager and former proprietor of the American Concert Saloon at 414 Broadway. One year later, Albert M. Palmer, Shook’s clerk at the IRS, took over. Under Palmer’s management, the theater operated as the Union Square Theatre Stock Co.

MaisonDoreeUnionPlace

From 1871 to 1881, the old Union Place Hotel was called the Maison Doree. In this photo from that period, you can just make out the hotel name; just to the left, you can see the Union Square Theatre. 

SheridanShoot

Sheridan Shook

The Old Peter Stuyvesant Farm

The land on which the Union Place Hotel and adjunct Union Square Theatre occupied was once part of a 33-acre farm owned by Cornelius T. Williams, the son of Mary Magdalene Tiebout and Edward Williams, and the stepson of the late Cornelius Tiebout, a New York merchant.

Tiebout had acquired the land in 1748 from one of Peter Stuyvesant’s heirs. He built a farmhouse near the present-day intersection of East 18th Street and Park Avenue South, and named his estate Roxborough.

The land had originally been conveyed to Stuyvesant in 1651 by the Dutch West India Company. Stuvesant’s farm extended from the Bowery to the East River between present-day East 3rd Street and East 30th Street.

UnionSquareSouth1828This 1885 painting by Albertis Del Orient Browere depicts Union Square, looking south from today’s 14th Street, as it appeared in 1828. The Union Place Hotel was constructed 20 years later, right about where the white house stands. 

In 1811, when the Commissioners’ Plan established Manhattan’s street grid, the area around Union Square was mostly farmland, as pictured above. In addition to the grid, the Commissioners’ Plan provided for a public square called Union Place at the intersection of the Bowery and Broadway, just to the west of the Williams’ property. In 1832, additional land was acquired for the park, which opened to the public as Union Square in 1839.

The Final Years of Jim and the Union Square Hotel

In Part II, I’ll share some more amazing stories about Jim, the Union Square Theatre cat, and about the final years of the old hotel.