Tracing Lost New York Through Postcards


Then a few months ago, Mr. Pisark, knowing only that she was a Madison Square aficionado, sent her a scan of a random card that just happened to contain all necessary documentary evidence to prove that it portrayed that granddaddy of all public holiday trees. Postmarked in January 1913, it was a “real photo postcard” — a photograph taken by an individual and turned into a one-of-a-kind postcard by a film processor — that showed the giant fir with the majestic Stanford White-designed Madison Square Garden behind it. On the card a man had written to his mother: “I took this picture Xmas day,” adding on the front, “Christmas tree for everybody, Madison Square… 1912.”

“He didn’t know that tree was one of my passions,” Ms. Berman said of Mr. Pisark. “But I’m gasping for air when I open the email and I’m looking at the picture of that card.”

Ms. Berman said that before a friend took her to her first postcard show in the 1980s, she knew nothing about the history of the Flatiron Building or its environs. But her journey down the rabbit hole of postcard collecting opened her up to various vibrant, earlier incarnations of the area. In making the past present, her ever-growing hoard of cards taught her that she lives in a palimpsest of a city, layers of past streetscapes poking out from beneath the current ones.

Credit…Bess Adler for The New York Times

Ambling along Madison Square West through the antique postcards and photographs she found, Ms. Berman passed the white-marble 1859 Fifth Avenue Hotel (a spot occupied today by the Fifth Avenue Building, home to Eataly) and stumbled upon Delmonico’s, the famously elegant restaurant built at 26th Street in 1876. Next door, she observed a four-story townhouse.

Venturing across 26th and looking back at the same corner via a later postcard, Ms. Berman discovered that the Delmonico’s building had been topped off with a new mansard roof and remodeled as Café Martin. And the adjoining brownstone was now gone, replaced by the 1905 Beaux-Arts-style Cross Chambers Building, luxury bachelor apartments stacked above a swanky store for Mark Cross, the leather-goods maker. (In 1984, Ms. Berman would move her office to the Cross Chambers.)

Card by card, year by year, Ms. Berman reconstructed the entire periphery of the park, ultimately turning her passion into a lushly illustrated book, “Madison Square: The Park and Its Celebrated Landmarks.”


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