Hands On History
Hands On History: Preserving the Past in the Present, an Education Initiative of the Victorian Society New York.
By Lesley Doyel
The teacher’s manual called Teaching Tin Pan Alley: Saving and Celebrating a Side Street of New York, has evolved from the P.S. 11 after school class called Hands On History:
Preserving the Past in the Present, an Education Initiative of the Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society New York.
In this weekly after school class, instructor Lesley Doyel, provides an up close and personal exploration of local Chelsea history, and that of surrounding neighborhoods. The class also investigates various ways of preserving the past though designation of both individual buildings and/or historic districts by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, or through the repurposing of existing structures via adaptive reuse.
This fall, Hands On History (HOH) students are learning about West 28th Street – the birthplace of the popular music industry in the late 19th and early 20th century. Songs like The Side Walks of New York, The Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin, and Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band, still known and enjoyed today. Since P.S. 11 is on West 21st Street, it was possible to visit the actual site, and to look for evidence of the past. Amazingly, this includes a number of Tin Pan Alley’s original buildings, including Number 40, where Take Me Out to the Ball Game was penned in 1908. On a tour of the site with Laurence Frommer, students also learned that the area directly adjacent to West 28th Street was the bustling New York theater district in those days.
In class, HOH students learned that before radio and record players, sheet music was the way in which many songs became well known. Sheet music made it possible for these songs to be played on pianos and sung in homes throughout America. Hands On History students also experienced first-hand, the clatter and noise created by banging on an actual tin pans – simulating the cacophony made by many pianos playing different songs all at the same time – hence the moniker, Tin Pan Alley.
In addition to other projects included in Teaching Tin Pan Alley, Hands On History will, as a class, be writing a letter urging the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to preserve the historic buildings on West 28th Street, which they now know to be a very special side street of New York – before it’s too late!
Download the Hands On History: Teaching Tin Pan Alley Teacher’s Manual
P.S. 11 HANDS ON HISTORY: PRESERVING THE PAST IN THE PRESENT
FALL 2017 – WINTER 2018 Report
VSNY Education Initiative planned and implemented by Lesley Doyel with
Teaching Assistant Katherine Fernandez
Tin Pan Alley
This was a busy semester for Hands On History. We began by learning about the history and importance of Tin Pan Alley, and joined efforts to preserve original buildings on this block of West 28th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue. In the early 20th century, this once bustling street was the birthplace of the modern music industry, producing many songs that we still know today such as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and “The Sidewalks of New York.” We visited the actual place with professional tour guide, Laurence Frommer. (See Education Initiative section of VSNY website for details and Teaching Tin Pan Alley education manual.)
Trains, Transportation and Innovation
Throughout the semester participants in Hands On History (HOH) learned about various forms of “historic preservation,” which include Landmark and Historic District designation by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well as preservation of historic places through either continuous use or adaptive reuse.
The High Line and Hudson Yards
We made two field trips to the repurposed freight train trestle now a public park known as the High Line. We learned that only freight trains carrying produce and goods up and down Manhattan’s far Westside traveled on these tracks. We visited Chelsea Market, the former headquarters of the National Biscuit Company, now NABISCO for short, and saw how a spur from the High Line actually entered the building that spans an entire city block. Also known as the birthplace of the Oreo Cookie. (Photo A)
We also traveled to the northern most section of the High Line and saw lots of new development that will be called “Hudson Yards,” which will ultimately cover the train yards originally used as a depot for the Hudson River Railroad a line running down Eleventh Avenue, as trains were not permitted to operate south of West 32nd Street because of a fear of explosions. New York Central and later Penn Central expanded the rail yards and used them as a freight terminal up until the 1970s. They are still visible.
The Terminal Warehouse Building
We visited and important relic of Manhattan’s once intensely industrial waterfront called the Terminal Warehouse, a vast structure on West 26th Street and 11th
Avenue, built in 1890. Once a loading station for trains carrying freight up and down the northeast, the central hallway of Terminal Warehouse allowed New York Central trains operating on street level to pull directly into the building from Eleventh Avenue, and Erie and Lehigh trains to pull in from Twelfth Avenue. In the huge tunnel like interior, freight would be whisked off and stored in the building’s array of storage facilities or reloaded onto a train that would take it to its next destination. (Photo B)
Pennsylvania Station and The Grand Central Terminal
Hands On History also learned about two magnificent train stations used for passenger train service; The original Pennsylvania Station on West 34th built in 1910, and the Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street, which opened in 1913. While Grand Central has been preserved as a NYC Landmark, the 1910 Penn Station was tragically demolished in 1963. However, the loss of this glorious building was a watershed event, and gave rise to New York’s historic preservation movement, and the creation of the NYC Landmarks Law in 1965.
Hands On History toured Grand Central twice, the first time also visiting the Transit Museum’s Annual Holiday model train show, and also explored the lower level of the current Penn Station to see the “Ghost Series” mural installation evoking the sculptures and columns that once graced the original Pennsylvania Station. (Photo C)
New Train Hubs in lower Manhattan
While learning about the importance of both freight and passenger train stations and hubs in Manhattan, we also learned about the complexities of the extensive track system under the city streets, and about the New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, the MTA, overseeing the NYC subway system, one of the oldest and largest in the world. We visited two brand new transportation hubs in lower Manhattan; The new Fulton Center, which incorporates and preserves the 1888 Corbin building, as well as the monumental Oculus train hub at the site of the former World Trade Center. (Photos D, E & F)
Madison Square Park and History in LEGOS
During the holiday season, we’d also taken a trip to Madison Square Park, to see the site of America’s first community Christmas tree, a tradition that continues, and visited the LEGO store on 23rd and Fifth Avenue featuring a three-dimensional frieze illustrating the entire history of the Madison Square area made completely out of LEGO pieces. (Photo G)
The Man in the Moon Discovered and Rediscovered
Across the street from P.S. 11, the HOH class found a sculpted image that many people don’t even notice. The image on the iron fence outside a residence on West 21st Street pays homage to an early silent movie made in 1902 called A Trip to the Moon about a space ship from earth landing in the eye of the moon, and was created by innovative film maker, Georges Méliès, and inspired by the books of Jules Verne. (Photo H)
Especially because we know the Man in the Moon with Rocket image from our own experience, and because we’ve visited many train stations and seen so many station clocks, our semester culminated with a viewing of HUGO, a 2011 movie directed by Martin Scorsese, adapted from Brian Selznick’s graphic novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
In short, the film is about a boy who, through tragic circumstances, lives alone in the walls of the magnificent Montparnasse railway station in Paris during the 1930s. But Hugo has learned the intricate art of clock making from his late father, and ends up maintaining the Station’s elaborate system of clocks. Befriended by a girl named Isabelle, she and Hugo eventually discover that Isabelle’s godfather is none other than George Méliès, the bitter and long forgotten genius who’d made the ground breaking silent film A Trip to the Moon – source of the image on the gate across the street from school. When you see the fantastical gate, your Hands On History expert will surely point out that the image is accidentally backwards. The New HOH semester begins on Wednesday, February 28th, 2018.
The Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America
Get In Touch
Leave your name and email below along with any questions or comments.