Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

The money motifs of a defunct 42nd Street bank

April 14, 2014

Bowerysavingsbank42ndstToday, 110 East 42nd Street is the elegant restaurant Cipriani’s.

But beginning in 1923, the building at this address served as the midtown branch of the Bowery Savings Bank.

On a street packed with lovely, innovative buildings, this one is worth a long look.

With its Romanesque arches and pillars, it’s a true cathedral of commerce.

BowerysavingsmanwithsackEven more impressive are the stone-carved figures and motifs that symbolize money.

They’re endlessly fascinating. Two grotesques face each other over a doorway: one carries a sack of money, the other has his hand out. Beehives and squirrels with nuts signal savings.

One carving depicts a woman holding an open jewelry box. Another has a man holding a sailing ship.

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Some of the carvings are pretty bizarre. Along an entrance, a rat bites the foot of a man holding a beehive; in another image, a dead rat hangs from a rope. What’s this about?

BowerybankdeadratAt the top of a pillar is a carving of a bull, a man holding keys, and a woman with a bounty of goods.

The bull “symbolizes determination and reliability, the keys, guardianship, and the cornucopia, harvest and abundance,” states Marcantonio Architects blog.

“There also seems to be a native quality to the feathered leaves and the braided rope holding them together.”

Collectively, the images “convey lightheartedness through the details which are teeming with life and imagination, and, in light of recent events in the world of finance, a touch of irony as well,” the blog continues.

Above the entrance is the bank’s very old-school, humble motto: “A mutual institution chartered 1834 to serve those who save.”

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Sounds very quaint to contemporary ears used to thinking of banks as agents of corruption.

Times Square: crossroads of the world in 1910

April 12, 2014

Is this Times Square, or 23rd Street facing the Flatiron Building? It’s clearly 42nd Street, with the card focused on the New York Times building that gave the square its name in 1904.

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But when I first looked at the postcard, I immediately thought Flatiron.

Trolleys, traffic, ladies carrying umbrellas . . . and the Hotel Cadillac is on the left. What stories that building would be able to tell, if only it still existed.

Why are these Dutch-style houses on 37th Street?

March 22, 2014

West 37th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is a gritty, mostly sunless stretch of Manhattan in the heart of what’s left of the old Garment District.

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So what in the world are these two houses that look like they belong in Amsterdam doing sandwiched between tall loft buildings and rickety old walkups?

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The top one, at 18 West 37th Street, is actually quite charming—a stepped gabled gem masked by a tacky storefront.

Dutchhouseswallstreet1746The second one closer to Sixth Avenue looks like a poor man’s version of the first.

No original Dutch buildings from the 17th century survive in New York. But this 1880s sketch gives an idea of the kind of Amsterdam-like architecture that existed on Wall Street centuries ago.

These two replicas on 37th Street must be leftovers from a faddish 1890s revival of Dutch-style architecture.

Colonial New York’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade

March 17, 2014

In the Fifth century, the British-born missionary known as St. Patrick began converting the Irish to Christianity.

In the 18th century, St. Patrick got his first parade—held not in Ireland but on the streets of lower Manhattan.

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[St. Patrick's Day in Union Square, 1874]

Depending on the source, it was either 1762 or 1766. The small celebratory march took place near City Hall on March 17, the feast day of St. Patrick. The parade was composed of Irish soldiers serving in the British Army in a pre-Revolutionary War city.

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[Marchers in the St. Patrick's Day Parade on Fifth Avenue in 1909, then below in 1913]

The marchers wore green (banned in Ireland at the time) and played bagpipes, just like today. “The tradition of a militia-sponsored event was continued until 1812, when Irish-American fraternal and benevolent societies assumed organizational responsibility, although soldiers continued to lead the march,” wrote The New York Times.

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As Irish immigrants poured into the city in the 1840s and 1850s following the potato famine, the parade swelled to massive proportions.

Through the 19th century, it followed a circuitous route from Second Avenue and 23rd Street down to City Hall, up Seventh Avenue, and back again to the East Side before ending a Cooper Union.

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[the parade in 1949 at St. Patrick's Cathedral]

“Mayor Abraham Oakey Hall (1868-1872) attended the festivities dressed in emerald-green coat and shirt, and facetiously insisted that his initials were short for “Ancient Order of Hibernians,” the Times wrote.

The Irish may have been unloved as an ethnic group, but vote-hungry politicians realized they couldn’t ignore the popular parade and began making appearances.

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[In 1956, these Irish wolfhounds were the mascots of New York's celebrated 69th Army Regiment, aka the "Fighting Irish"]

“In 1887, newly-elected mayor Abram Hewitt broke tradition by refusing to review the parade or fly the shamrock flag at City Hall, lecturing the city that ‘America should be governed by Americans.’ He was not reelected,” reported the Times.

By the middle of the 20th century, the parade featured close to 200,000 marchers and millions of spectators. Despite its reputation for rowdiness and controversy over who can march and who cannot, politicians continue to show up, Mayor de Blasio not withstanding.

Staying at Midtown’s Hotel Bristol in the 1940s

March 10, 2014

Today, there’s a Chipotle at the Rockefeller Center address the Hotel Bristol once occupied.

The Bristol, as this postcard shows, was one of dozens of smart, modern city hotels catering to the influx of businessmen and tourists in the early 20th century.

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The Bristol appears to have been a happening place through the 1940s. That Pink Elephant restaurant must have been the site of many boozy business dinners.

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A 1922 ad showcases the Bristol’s endorsement by the YMCA: “A good hotel that Y men can recommend, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. 400 rooms, 300 baths. Rooms with bath: single $2 to $4. Double $5, $6, and $7.”

I don’t know if there’s any connection to the Bristol Plaza Hotel in the East 60s today—or if it’s a larger version of the six-story Bristol Hotel at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in the late 19th century.

Cool old phone exchange: Circle!

Three centuries at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue

February 24, 2014

“The pace was leisurely, with bicycles, horsecars, broughams, and hansom cabs comprising traffic,” states the caption to this 1898 photo looking north on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street. It’s from New York Then and Now.

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The twin lamppost makes a nice contrast to the twin Moorish-style towers of Temple Emanu-El, built in 1868 and a mainstay of this section of Fifth Avenue until 1927.

The building on the northwest corner at 42nd is the circa-1875 Hotel Bristol. See the stone wall with a low fence on the far left? There’s no New York Public Library Building yet.

The year this photo was taken, the Croton Reservoir would be torn down—the wall looks like part of the reservoir structure.

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What a difference 76 years make. Fifth Avenue’s residential era is long over; it’s now the city’s commercial heart.

The temple, lampposts, and Hotel Bristol are gone, but the six-story building from 1870 on the far right still exists, with a Russell Stover candy store at the ground floor.

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Thirty-eight years later, in 2014, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street is still a crowded commercial corner, with one church steeple still in view.

What happened to the six-story building at the far right? It was swallowed up by H&M!

The WWII servicemen’s hangout at Grand Central

February 20, 2014

ServicemensloungeWartime New York City was a very hospitable place for the thousands of enlisted men (and women) going off to fight in World War II or returning home on furlough.

Take Grand Central Terminal, for example. During the war, the East Balcony was turned into a “Service Men’s Lounge” by the New York Central and New Haven Railroads.

According to the back of this postcard, the lounge was “equipped with ping pong and pool tables, library, piano, easy chairs, lunch counter, etc.”

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The lounge was “a meeting room for men of all nations,” wrote John Belle in Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives. “On any given day, it was not unusual to see a kilted Highlander at the coffee bar learning from an American soldier how to dunk a doughnut.”

In 1943, Life ran this warning about the lounge to travelers: “Busiest on weekends when thousands travel on furlough. To give them more room on weekend trains, plan trips you must make for mid-week.”

The long history of the Milford (Plaza) Hotel

February 17, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHave you seen the renovated Milford Hotel? The building itself is mostly the same, but the lobby and interior on Eighth Avenue and 44th Street sport a sleek, minimalist look.

The modern renovation is hard to wrap your head around if you lived in New York in the 1980s.

Back then, the Milford was the cheapo, tourist-friendly Milford Plaza, known for its crazy-catchy 1980s commercials.

(Warning: view it, and the Milford Plaza song will be in your head in an endless loop for the rest of the day.)

And if your New York history goes back decades earlier, you might remember when the Milford Plaza was the Lincoln Hotel.

Opened in 1928, the Lincoln featured 1,300 rooms spread out across 27 floors. Over the next few decades, the hotel hosted salesmen, tourists, and people connected to the theater district. The restaurant and ballroom were packed with partygoers.  A few suicides were recorded too.

Hotel Lincoln, 44th to 45th Street at 8th Avenue New York CityBy the 1950s, the Lincoln was a shell of its former self—a rundown apartment hotel in out-of-fashion west Midtown. An 85 percent vacancy rent kept the number of residents low, the hallways ghostly.

Developer William Zeckendorf bought it in 1956 and got permission to kick the longtime rent-controlled tenants out. Yet they didn’t leave without a fight.

In 1956, the last of the holdout tenants—the Hotel Lincoln Seven, we’ll call them—faced eviction proceedings about the same time the hotel’s furnishings were scheduled to go up for auction.

“Within four hours of the sale’s opening bid, the restaurant, the barber shop, the coffee shop, and the beauty salon had been swept clean of fixtures,” wrote The New York Times.

ThemilfordmarqueeMeanwhile, the developers offered to relocate the holdout residents to similar hotel accommodations at the Knickerbocker on West 44th Street. They declined.

Finally, they ponied up cash payouts of $300o per tenant to promptly vacate. “The last to agree was Miss Edna King, a guest since 1929,” reported The New York Times.

Cocktail time at an old 1940s Russian restaurant

February 10, 2014

RussianrestaurantpostcardEver heard of Tarwid’s Russian Bear restaurant? Me neither, but based on their postcard advertisements, I’m intrigued.

“America’s oldest Russian restaurant” boasted that it was “nationally famed the excellence of its Russian cuisine and beauty of true Russian atmosphere.”

Tarwid’s once had a prime location on Lexington Avenue in Midtown. Must have been the site of some truly epic working lunches.

According to real-estate records, the place relocated to Lexington and 57th Street in 1948, and then moved down Lexington to 39th Street in 1952.

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After that, the trail goes cold. Today, the address leads to a 1960s-style apartment building housing several small stores.

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I love the ELdorado phone exchange and the old-school ZIP code, only the last two digits necessary for mail to be delivered within New York City.

The most extravagant party of the 19th century

January 23, 2014

In Gilded Age New York, superrich families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts were known for their opulent balls.

The most over-the-top ball of them all, however, was held by Bradley and Cornelia Martin, a wealthy lawyer and his matron-like wife known as the Bradley Martins.

Bradleymartinball

In the late 19th century, their riches made the Bradley Martins part of the upper crust of city society. And in 1896, the story goes, they had an idea.

CorneliamartinmaryqueenofscotsThe Panic of 1893 still had its grip on the city. Unemployment was high; the economy in the doldrums.

Mrs. Martin believed that hosting a costume ball would lift spirits. And the money spent (about $300,000) would end up benefiting the florists, cooks, and other service workers they had to hire—a trickle-down effect as it were.

So they sent out 1,200 invitations, booked the Waldorf Hotel at 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue for February 10, 1897, and held their legendary “monument to vanity,” as the New York World put it.

About 600 invitees attended. They arrived at a hotel (below) transformed into Versailles. Guests dressed as Kings and Queens of legendary European royalty. Mrs. Martin, at right, went as Mary Queen of Scots.

Waldorfhotel1890sAttendees dined on champagne, duck, truffles, petit fours, and other delicacies; they danced until 5 a.m.

The next day, the newspapers dutifully reported the details of the ball—but they also excoriated the Bradley Martins for their wastefulness and tacky display of wealth during an economic recession.

“The ball was greeted with a torrent of criticism and the Bradley Martins removed themselves to England; there was much clucking of tongues in the society pages and sermons about foolish ostentation,” wrote Eric Homberger in Mrs. Astor’s New York.

Even a city used to gawking at unrestrained vulgar ostentation had had enough. The Gilded Age was unofficially over.


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