History

The Illicit Affair That Brought Greenpoint’s own Mae West to Hollywood

Mae West

In a previous piece I described how Mae West funded her scandalous 1927 play sex through her romance with the rich, handsome, but very dangerous gangster Owney Madden. However, it was the poor, but handsome bag man of the gangster who made West an American icon.

In 1927 the Acting Mayor of New York Joe McKee, scandalized by the drama’s frank sexual portrayals, had West and the rest of the cast arrested. The arrest was a publicity gold mine and sex and West were the words on the lips of all New Yorkers. When the cops jailed Mae the gangster’s connections with Blackwell’s Island warden earned Mae a private cell and silk underwear. She even dined with the warden every night and left after six days being let out early for good behavior. Upon her release she quipped, “It was the first time I ever got anything for good behavior.” Continue reading

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Patrick Keely, The Prolific Architect of Saint Anthony of Padua Church

Saint Anthony of Padua Church - image via Historic Districts Council
Saint Anthony of Padua Church. Photo via Historic Districts Council

For years I passed the graceful façade of Saint Anthony of Padua church (862 Manhattan Avenue) and admired its beauty, but never really thought much about the man who built it. Recently I researched the life of the amazing man who built this Greenpoint landmark and his story is every bit as amazing as the church he built.

Patrick Keely (1816-1896) was the most prolific church builder in American history, constructing, by some estimates, seven hundred churches stretching from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico and from New England to Iowa. He built St. Anthony’s in 1876. It is like many of his churches built in the neo-gothic style. Keely’s prolific career is all the more shocking when we consider that he never received any formal training as an architect. Continue reading

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How New York’s Most Notorious Gangster Bankrolled Mae West’s Broadway Hit

Cary Grant and Mae West in You're No Angel.
Cary Grant and Mae West in You’re No Angel.

In my book about local history, Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past, I told the story about how in 1927, local Greenpoint gal Mae West scandalized New York by staging a play called Sex, which presented prostitution and so outraged the acting mayor of New York that he had Mae and the cast arrested. The arrest catapulted West to stardom, but I only knew half the story. The real life drama behind the staging of the play is every bit as salacious as West’s racy drama.

Staging a Broadway play has always been an expensive proposition, and it was beyond the means of West, who in 1926 was an out of work actress. West, however, was resourceful and if she did not have money, then there were men who did; so she decided to use her considerable feminine charms to finance her Broadway drama.
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Greenpoint: The Birthplace of the American Carousel

Charles Looff’s Coney Island Carousel

Our area has been the birthplace of many things: the American porcelain industry, oil refining, but carousels? Who knew? Actually, Greenpoint has a long history of carousel production that goes all the way back to 1850 when Greenpoint’s Eliphalet Scripture off Greenpoint received the first patent for the improvement of the “flying” carousel horse.

Another Greenpoint man would make a name for himself as the creator of some of the most beautiful American carousels. Charles Looff who lived on Leonard Street is arguably the father of the American carousel. The Danish-born Loof, arrived in Greenpoint in 1870 and found employment as a woodworker in a local furniture factory. After work he would take scraps of wood home and carve beautiful carousel animal figures from them. Loof mounted his wooden animals onto a circular platform and created his first merry-go-round. In 1876, he built the carousel at Lucy Vandeveer’s Bathing Pavilion at West Sixth Street and Surf Avenue, Coney Island’s first carousel and first amusement ride. Continue reading

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Greenpointer Hosts Tours About NYC’s History of Espionage

New York is known as the ultimate city for countless things: fashion, finance, art, Instagrammable food trends – the list is longer than the line at a Supreme drop in Soho. When it comes to espionage, however, the city doesn’t necessarily come to mind the way Moscow or Washington, DC (especially as of late) might. Lucie Levine, a native Manhattanite turned Greenpointer, makes a strong case for her hometown as the ultimate spy city with Archive On Parade, her new tour and event company that reveals NYC’s fascinating history of espionage.

“What makes New York special is that it is the capital of so many industries, with more goods coming into NY harbor by 1900 than anywhere on Earth, and people always moving here from all over the world,” Lucie shares. “For a spy, that means a larger array of possible disguises and aliases, because anybody can be here doing any trade. Nothing seems out of place.”

Archive On Parade launched in February with two distinct walking tours, one in Lower Manhattan following the footsteps of Washington’s Revolutionary War spies and the other in Midtown covering espionage sights during both World Wars. Lucie, a self-proclaimed “history nerd,” does all of the writing, research, and tour guiding. Prior to starting her own business, she gave guided tours on the double decker red buses you see jam-packed with tourists. Continue reading

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Greenpoint and World War I: Farewell Parades, Lives Lost & A Fitting Monument

Last month marked the hundredth anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, a war which had many profound effects on Greenpoint. A hundred and fifty local men lost their lives in the war and many more were wounded. One of the fallen has always intrigued me. Frank Baliszewski, who lived in my house at two Clifford Place, died on October 4th, 1918 from wounds he suffered in battle in France. I know little else about him, but I have often wondered about him. His name still stands on a monument outside his parish church, St. Stanislaw Kostka on Driggs Avenue. There were also two brothers, the McVeighs from Hausman Street, who fell within a day of each other in different parts of France. Continue reading

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How A Greenpoint Statue Became A Target of Anti-Americanism

Many Greenpointers know that Ferdinand De Lesseps famous Iwo Jima memorial was cast locally at Bedi Rassy Art foundry on India Street; however many people do not know the story of another sculpture cast there, which has become one of the most attacked statues in the world and a focal point of anti-American violence.

In 1963 De Lesseps cast a twelve-foot high bronze statue of Harry Truman. The statue is one of only eight statues of American presidents that stand outside of the United. States. The piece was commissioned by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, a Greek-American group, to honor the Truman Doctrine, which gave $2 billion in economic and military aid to the Greek government to defeat communist guerrillas during the country’s civil war between 1946 and 1949. Continue reading

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A History of the Greenpoint Ferry

East River Ferry, via Facebooka
The East River Ferry, via Facebook

Starting this morning, the East River Ferry is no more—it’s transitioning into a new entity, NYC Ferry, to provide city-wide service. The good thing about the new city-subsidized service is that fares are being slashed to $2.75 for a one-way ticket (formerly up to $6). As Greenpoint’s waterfront transforms itself from industrial shoreline to “Dubai on the East River,” and greater numbers of people settle along the East River shore the importance of local ferry service becomes increasingly important. Let’s take a look at the history of the Greenpoint ferry. Continue reading

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A History of Greenpoint in 25 Buildings: 85 Calyer Street

Thomas Fitch Rowland, illustration by Aubrey Nolan
Thomas Fitch Rowland, illustration by Aubrey Nolan

85 Calyer Street looks like many other frame houses in Greenpoint, but it was the home of the greatest mechanical genius to ever live in Greenpoint, Thomas Fitch Rowland, and one of the most important short conversations in American history took place in the parlor there. First, though, lets get a little background on the owner of the house, Thomas Fitch Rowland.

Rowland was born in Connecticut in 1831 and became a railroad engineer, quickly becoming one of the leading experts in the design and construction of steam engines. However, he decided to leave railroad engineering, switching to the construction of steam engines for sailing ships and also developing an expertise in metallurgy. He was soon invited to come to Greenpoint to build ships because of his twin areas of expertise. By 1859 he founded his own company, the legendary Continental Iron Works on Quay Street. Two years later, he would help make history when visionary Swedish naval engineer John Ericsson approached him about building a revolutionary ship in Greenpoint, the ironclad Monitor, which would revolutionize warfare making wooden ships obsolete. Continue reading

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A History of Greenpoint in 25 Buildings: The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center

Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center - Illustration by Aubrey Nolan
Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center – Illustration by Aubrey Nolan

One of the oldest surviving local factory buildings is the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center located in the sprawling former factory building at 1155–1205 Manhattan Avenue. The factory dates from the days when Greenpoint was a center for shipbuilding. The factory was constructed as the Chelsea Fiber Mill in 1868 to make ropes for the neighboring shipyards. Shipbuilding died, but the rope making business thrived and grew. The jute mill produced marine rope from sisal, manila, jute, and hemp. By 1903 the factory had expanded to eight buildings, which were powered by a massive steam generator, which still survives today. The massive boilers that powered the generator are more than two stories tall and huge enough to fill a baseball diamond. The welded boilerplates on these boilers date from 1880. Old drawings also show a series of tracks, running across the rooftops of lower buildings, which workers used to move coal cars from waterfront loading areas to a huge chute on the mill’s roof. The coal was shoveled into furnaces that created heat and massive quantities of steam.

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