The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for June 15th, 2012

strange wanderers

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Johnston Brothers were the proprietors of the J. & C. Johnston company, located ultimately at the corner of Broadway and 22nd street in Manhattan. They sold lady’s novelties, ribbons, parasols and other fripperies from their prestigious “ladies mile” location. Lady’s Mile was anchored on the busy industrial side by Union Square and Tammany Hall, and on the swank side by 23rd street with its new “department stores”.

Theodore Roosevelt was born a few blocks away, and the prestigious townhouses that still line the surrounding area speak to the former exclusivity and standing of the Manhattan neighborhood.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There were three brothers- John, Robert, and Charles. Charles died in 1864, John in 1887 (possibly of a suicide). Robert, reknowned as an unlettered yet expert scholar in the fields of literature, mathematics and history, was so consumed by grief and longing for his siblings that he lost the family business in 1888, and then retired to a country house at Mount St. Vincent on the Hudson (near a convent). During a later foreclosure on his properties- which he had financially mismanaged due to his grief, a fire broke out and nearly claimed Roberts life.

In the end he was found dying of pneumonia, and suffering from madness, in a Riverdale barn.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Like other immigrant industrialists, the Johnstons often reached out to contacts in their country of origin to recruit trustworthy laborers. Robert’s name appears as principal donor to the The Fermangh Relief society, offering to aid those deserving persons in destitute circumstance with the costs of emigration and freedom from the terror of landlords.

The Johnstons were also Tammany men.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Such is the story of the storied and somewhat forgotten Johnston Brothers (and just in the name of full disclosure- the core information offered above was originally presented in the August 2009 posting “Up and Through Calvary” at this- your Newtown Pentacle) who lie in the grandest of all the mausoleums in the Calvary Cemetery. The Johnston store would have been in the building that currently houses “Renovation Hardware” across the street from the Flatiron or Fuller Brush Building.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The funerary structure in Calvary was erected in 1873, and cost an outlandish $200,000.

That’s two hundred thousand in 1873 dollars mind you. According to an online tool designed to calculate monetary inflation over time, $200,000 of 1873 dollars would be worth: $3,846,153.85 in 2012.

The quality of the sculptural elements extant to casual perusal certainly speak to a high level of craftsmanship and developed skill, but the identity of the tomb’s architect and artisans continues to elude. One can only imagine what splendors adorn the central cavity of the building, wherein lie the brothers.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A shattered white bronze gate adorns the entrance, which is in turn blocked by a large block of marble. This is one tomb not intended for the inspection of passerby, unfortunately. Perhaps there are former groundskeepers or employees of the great cemetery that have been inside for maintenance or liturgical duties who can share their experiences with you- lords and ladies of Newtown- who might be reading this post and would be willing to bear witness.

If so, please do not hesitate to use the commenting link below, and indicate if you’d like me to have you appear “anonymous” or not.



June 16th, 2012- Newtown Creek Alliance Dutch Kills walk (tomorrow)

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Newtown Creek Alliance has asked that, in my official capacity as group historian, a tour be conducted on the 16th of June- a Saturday. This walk will follow the Dutch Kills tributary, and will include a couple of guest speakers from the Alliance itself, which will provide welcome relief for tour goers from listening to me rattle on about Michael Degnon, Patrick “Battle Ax” Gleason, and a bunch of bridges that no one has ever heard of.

for June 16th tickets, click here for the Newtown Creek Alliance ticketing page

June 23rd, 2012- Atlas Obscura Thirteen Steps around Dutch Kills walk

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Additionally- the “Obscura Day” Thirteen Steps around Dutch Kills tour proved that the efficacy and charms of the Newtown Creek’s least known tributary, with its myriad points of interest, could cause a large group to overlook my various inadequacies and failings. The folks at Atlas Obscura, which is a fantastic website worthy of your attentions (btw), have asked me to repeat the tour on the 23rd of June- also a Saturday.

for June 23rd tickets, click here for the Atlas Obscura ticketing page

June 30th, 2012- Working Harbor Committee Kill Van Kull walk

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My various interests out on the sixth borough, NY Harbor, have brought me into association with the Working Harbor Committee. A member of the group’s Steering Committee- I also serve as the “official” group photographer, am chairman and principal narrator of their annual Newtown Creek Boat Tour, and occasionally speak on the microphone during other tours (mainly the Brooklyn one). This year, the group has branched out into terrestrial explorations to compliment the intense and extant schedule of boat tours, and I’m going to be leading a Kill Van Kull walking tour that should be a lot of fun.

The Kill Van Kull, or tugboat alley as its known to we harbor rats, is a tidal strait that defines the border of Staten Island and New Jersey. A busy and highly industrialized waterfront, Working Harbor’s popular “Hidden Harbor – Newark Bay” boat tours provide water access to the Kill, but what is it like on the landward side?

Starting at the St. George Staten Island Ferry terminal, join WHC Steering Committee member Mitch Waxman for a walk up the Kill Van Kull via Staten Islands Richmond Terrace. You’ll encounter unrivaled views of the maritime traffic on the Kill itself, as well as the hidden past of the maritime communities which line it’s shores. Surprising and historic neighborhoods, an abandoned railway, and tales of prohibition era bootleggers await.

The tour will start at 11, sharp, and you must be on (at least) the 10:30 AM Staten Island Ferry to meet the group at St. George. Again, plan for transportation changes and unexpected weirdness to be revealed to you at

for June 30th tickets, click here for the Working Harbor Committee ticketing page

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