The man behind a faded store sign at 52nd Street

April 12, 2021

In 1960, East Side resident Louis Mattia opened his antique light fixtures business in a small tenement space at 980 Second Avenue. Back then, Manhattan’s design district—in the East 50s along First and Second Avenues—was at its peak.

Showrooms and decorative arts concerns still operate here. But the neighborhood doesn’t resemble the one Mattia likely knew, when the Stuyvesant-educated machinist who worked nights restoring and rewiring lamps decided to open his own store and make his love of lamps his livelihood, according to 1972 Daily News article.

“Whenever Louis Mattia sees an old sconce or candlestick, a discarded table leg, a broken chandelier, or a 50-year-old bubble gum machine, he immediately envisions the lovely light it will shed as a lamp and proceeds to make it,” wrote the News.

“Louis, who is not only a clever artisan but an imaginative artist, looks upon a lamp with the same affection with which a father looks at his child.”

For 35 years, Mattia (above, in a photo from the News story) ran his store, giving it up in 1995. He passed away in 2004 at age 87, according to a death notice in the New York Times.

Mattia may be gone and East Midtown transformed. But for several years now, the beautiful, hand-painted sign for the former lamp store remains on the facade.

“Louis Mattia” the sign reads in large faded gold letters, along with the PL (for Plaza) phone number. It’s a gentle reminder of the man who the Daily News called “buoyant with enormous joy in his art and craft,” the kind of artist and craftsman Manhattan doesn’t seem to have much room for anymore.

[Second image: New York Daily News]

The oldest apartment house might be in Yorkville

April 12, 2021

Apartment living didn’t become the norm for wealthy and middle income Manhattanites until after the turn of the 20th century. (Poor city residents, of course, were cramming into small units under one roof in tenements since before the Civil War.)

But builders had begun enticing the upper and middle classes to try this new housing mode since 1869.

That’s when developer Rutherford Stuyvesant completed Stuyvesant Flats, the city’s first apartment building. His elegant five-story, 16-apartment building on East 18th Street was designed by Richard Hunt to appeal to folks who desired amenities like running water and bathrooms but couldn’t afford their own dwelling.

Stuyvesant Flats was bulldozed in 1958. But what might be the second-oldest big apartment house in Gotham is still standing on a busy corner 68 blocks up the East Side: a boxy beauty named the Manhattan (above and below).

The Manhattan, on Second Avenue and 86th Street, was built in 1879-1880. It’s one of the many “French flats” residences that were developed by the heirs of the Rhinelander family, which owned land in the late 18th and 19th centuries in what became the Yorkville section of Manhattan. (The family also developed these 1889 side-by-side Yorkville apartment buildings with the illustrious names the Kaiser and the Rhine.)

“French Flats evolved in the 1870s as demand grew for affordable, socially respectable working- and middle-class housing, and many of the earliest examples were built on the Upper East Side,” wrote the Historic Districts Council.

Almost 200 French flats were constructed in New York between 1869 and 1876, stated Gwendolyn Wright in her book, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America.

But when it comes to big apartment houses, the six-story, 33-unit Manhattan (third photo is from the side in 1940) might be the oldest survivor. The Dakota didn’t open until 1884, and this extant apartment building on East 17th Street is a small jewel from 1879.

What was the Manhattan like in 1880? Imposing, according to an homage to the building that hangs in the small lobby with a 1940s-era photo (fourth image, via the New York Times).

“It provided the most comfortable apartments east of Madison Avenue….Surrounding it, by contrast, were modest four- and five-story tenements that provided crowded housing for the largely immigrant and working-class population that was coming to Yorkville on the newly opened elevated trains on Second and Third Avenues.”

The building was designed around a courtyard. Each unit featured separate parlors, full kitchens, private bathrooms, servants’ rooms, and closets, notes the historical homage.

Architect Charles W. Clinton also designed the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue and 66th Street, and it’s no accident that both buildings have a similar feel, with red brick and “the look of a pared-down castle on the upper portions.”

The first residents of the Manhattan included people from “Germany, Austria, Sweden, Ireland, England, and Canada, as well as a few from Connecticut or Pennsylvania,” the historical homage states. “They were policemen, teachers, clerks, salesmen, bookkeepers, butchers, and one ‘brewmaster’ probably from one of the three large breweries on Second Avenue and the 90s.” Robert Wagner, US Senator from New York in the 1930s and 1940s and father of mayor Robert Wagner Jr., was also a resident.

The 20th century changed this stretch of the Upper East Side, but the Manhattan was stable. Fire escapes were installed, the stairs were likely replaced (above), and the facade redone a bit, “but the building remained undisturbed even through the first ‘luxury’ apartment boom of the 1960s,” wrote Christopher Gray in a New York Times piece from 1988, when the building was “destined for demolition.”

That didn’t happen, and today the building is a striking and eye-catching rental in a very different Yorkville. This two-bedroom unit is up for grabs right now for $4990 per month.

[Third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; fourth photo: Office for Metropolitan History via the New York Times]

What remains of the Stern’s store on 23rd Street

April 5, 2021

When the Stern Brothers opened their new Dry Goods Store at 32-36 West 23rd Street in October 1878, New York’s growing consumer class was floored.

The three Stern brothers from Buffalo had outgrown their previous shop on West 23rd Street as well as their first New York City store, established in 1867, around the corner at 367 Sixth Avenue). So a new cathedral of commerce was needed, and it featured a stunning cast-iron facade and five stories of selling space.

Stern’s was now the city’s biggest department store—one that catered to both aspirational middle-class shoppers and the wealthy carriage trade. These elite shoppers entered a separate door on 22nd Street, so as not to rub shoulders with the riffraff.

But everyone who came to Stern’s left feeling like a million bucks.

”When the customer entered the store, he was welcomed personally by one of the Stern brothers, all of whom wore gray-striped trousers and cutaway tailcoats,” wrote the New York Times in 2001, quoting Larry Stone, who started at Stern’s in 1948 as a trainee and retired as chief executive in 1993. ”Pageboys escorted the customer to the department in which they wished to shop, and purchases were sent out in elegant horse-drawn carriages and delivered by liveried footmen.”

Stern’s was such a popular spot on 23rd Street—the northern border of what became known as the Ladies Mile Shopping District, where women were free to browse and buy without having to be escorted by their husbands or fathers—this dry goods emporium was enlarged in 1892.

The store was always a stop for tourists, too. “We got off [the Broadway car] at 23rd Street and Josie took us to the Stern Brothers, one of the large and select dry goods houses where we saw the latest fashions,” wrote 12-year-old Naomi King, who kept a travel diary of her visit to the city with her parents from Indiana in 1899.

King wrote that she saw “all the new spring styles [and] the new spring color: amethyst, purple, or violet in all shades [and] stripes extending to gentlemen’s cravats in Roman colors.”

But Stern’s reign as one of the most popular shops on Ladies Mile wouldn’t last—mainly because Ladies Mile didn’t last. Macy’s was the first store to relocate uptown, from 14th Street and Sixth Avenue to Herald Square, in 1903.

Other big-name department stores followed. Stern’s made the jump to 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue in 1913, leaving their old building behind, according to a 1967 New York Times article marking the store’s centennial. For most of the 20th century, the palatial building on 23rd Street was used for light industry and commercial concerns.

That 42nd Street flagship store would ultimately close in 1970, wrote Gerard R. Wolfe in New York: A Guide to the Metropolis. By 2001, Stern’s shut down all of its stores and went out of business.

Since 2000s, Home Depot has occupied the old Stern’s dry goods palace, and it seems as if every trace of Stern’s has long been striped from the building.

Except on the facade. If you look up above the Home Depot Sign, you can see the initials “SB,” a permanent reminder of this magnificent building’s original triumphant owners.

[Top three images: NYPL Digital Collection]

The curious el train in the nocturnal 1930s city

April 5, 2021

When this lithograph was made by Leonard Pytlak in 1935, Manhattan’s elevated train lines were still screeching and lurching up and down the city’s major avenues.

Already made obsolete by subways and buses and soon to be dismantled, the el trains were noisy pieces of machinery that operated high above sidewalks yet helped transform late 19th century Gotham from a horse-powered town to a mighty metropolis of steel tracks.

But if the trains were emblems of the modern machine age, why is the lone figure crossing the nighttime street below the tracks so much larger than the train itself? And why is the street no wider than an alley?

My guess is that Pytlak might be trying to humanize the el train, giving us a Modernist scene of out of proportion shapes with the soft light of Post-Impressionism. There’s also the influence of Ashcan social realism here: a Belgian block city street lined with a hotel and tenements.

Born in 1910, Pytlak was a lithographer who studied at the Art Students League and worked for the New York City WPA Graphics Program from 1934 to 1941, according to the Illinois State Museum. The museum has this strangely alluring lithograph, titled “Uptown,” in its collection.

The faded ad for a candy maker on Prince Street

April 5, 2021

On a walk down Prince Street at that magical time in the late afternoon when New York City’s faded ads seem to appear with some clarity, I noticed white lettering in a crack between two tenements.

“Specialists in (for?) Chocolate,” the white letters read. The rest of the ad was too blurry to make out, but the word “chocolate” looks like it’s on the last line as well.

The address of the tenement that featured the ad is 178 Prince Street, between Thompson and Sullivan. Was there a chocolatier or chocolate factory at this spot at one time?

Sure enough, the answer is yes. The company, Garnier & Fuerfile, advertised themselves in Confectioner’s and Baker’s Gazette in 1899 as “manufacturers and jobbers of” candy, with a factory and storeroom at 178 Prince Street.

Garnier & Fuerfile was located in what could be called a former candy manufacturing district. The Tootsie-Roll factory was nearby at 325-329 West Broadway. Heide’s licorice and jujubees were produced at 84-90 Van Dam Street. And a chocolate moulds company had its headquarters at 159 Bleecker Street.

I’m not sure when these French-sounding candy makers began occupying 178 Prince Street, nor when they left the premises. But the faded ad remains—a sweet sign to come across.

[Second image: Confectioner’s and Baker’s Gazette]

A blue morning in front of the new Penn Station

March 29, 2021

George Bellows clearly had a fascination with the construction of Penn Station. Blue Morning, from 1909, is the last of four paintings Bellow completed from 1907 to 1909 chronicling the development of this stunning transportation hub.

“Undertaken by the Pennsylvania Railroad and designed by architectural firm McKim, Mead, & White, Pennsylvania Station (more commonly known as Penn Station) was an enormously ambitious project that helped transform New York into a thriving, modern, commuter metropolis,” states the National Gallery of Art.

“The building project was of considerable interest to the public, and throughout the years that Bellows worked on these paintings, newspapers and magazines regularly reported on the station’s progress.”

“The unusual backlit composition minimizes the pit and instead focuses on the laborers working in the foreground. McKim, Mead, & White’s partially completed terminal building is visible in the distance,” according to the NGA.

The country chapel still standing on 42nd Street

March 29, 2021

On the eastern end of 42nd Street between First and Second Avenues stands a delightful little brick church.

Hemmed in on all three sides by tall apartment towers, it’s an eclectic dollhouse-like structure—with Gothic windows and arches as well as a facade that looks like a nod to its Tudor City neighbors.

But this church predates Tudor City and the modern hustle of East 42nd Street by at least 50 years.

So how did a country-style chapel end up on one of New York’s busiest thoroughfares?

The story begins with another church, the Church of the Covenant (above in 1890)—a Presbyterian church completed in 1865 at Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) and 35th Street. After the Civil war, this area was on its way to becoming one of the poshest enclaves in Manhattan.

“Dedicated in 1865, the graceful stone building was designed in the Romanesque style by James Renwick, Jr., the noted architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, All Saints Catholic Church and Grace Church in New York City, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC,” wrote nycago.com.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the Church of the Covenant began running a mission school out of a stable on East 40th Street. One of the Church’s well-heeled congregants was architect J. Cleveland Cady, the designer behind the original Metropolitan Opera House, part of the American Museum of Natural History, and dozens of churches and synagogues in and around New York City.

Cady ran the mission school, and in 1871 he designed a country-style chapel known as Covenant Chapel that served as kind of a satellite branch of the church down on 35th Street.

By the 1890s, East 42nd Street was a developing residential area. But it still didn’t have the population and cache of Murray Hill.

That would soon change. As New York’s population marched northward, Covenant Chapel’s congregation became larger than that of the main church.

In 1893, the country chapel on 42nd Street became the main church. “A Fellowship Hall was added to the 42nd Street site in 1927, with a half-timbered facade to complement neighboring Tudor City,” wrote David Dunlap in From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship.

The original Church of the Covenant outlived its use and was bulldozed—and the little country chapel continues to serve the neighborhood.

[Second image: CUNY Graduate Center Collection]

The tiny historic district on an East Village block

March 29, 2021

From its Dutch colonial beginning as Peter Stuyvesant’s bouwerie to its later incarnation as a haven for immigrants and artists, the East Village is steeped in history.

Several historic districts acknowledge this rich backstory. But one of the most overlooked is the East 10th Street Historic District, perhaps because it’s so small. The entire district is merely a one-block stretch of 26 row houses and tenements that got its start when Tompkins Square, just across the street, was in the idea stage.

The beginning of East 10th Street goes back to the 1820s, when the heirs of Peter Stuyvesant, former governor-general of New Amsterdam, started selling off parcels of land from his estate.

The growing city of New York at that time was pushing its boundaries beyond Houston Street, and fine row houses for the wealthy were going up on Bond Street, Lafayette Street, and the newly created St. Marks Place.

In 1833, the Stuyvesant descendants sold all the lots on East 10th Street between Avenues A and B to a respected residential developer named Thomas E. Davis—the man who turned St. Marks Place into a stylish enclave, according to the East 10th Street Historic District Designation Report. (Below, an 1833 map with St. Marks Street already on it, while East 10th Street is undeveloped.)

“It was a savvy business move,” states the report, “for that same year the state legislature passed an act creating a public square just across the street on the blocks between East 7th Street and East 10th Street from Avenues A to B.”

Then and now, building in New York City is never easy. While the city was laying out and fencing in Tompkins Square in the 1830s, Davis was figuring out how to shore up the swampy ground under East 10th Street. (He likely didn’t want the homes that would eventually be built here to suffer the fate of the new houses that went up around the Bowery in the 1820s, which soon began sinking into the ground.)

Finally in the 1840s, with the city recovering from the Panic of 1837, the first houses were finished in this much-anticipated new residential district. Number 301, on the far right in the photo above, was completed in 1844, notes the designation report. Within the decade, several others would go up as well, designed in the popular Italianate style as well as Greek Revival.

The first residents of the row houses, however, may not have been the prominent New Yorkers their designers had hoped for. The report explains that in the 1840s and 1850s they were occupied by a ship joiner, a merchant, a butcher, a Rabbi, and a purveyor of artificial flowers. By this time, the city’s elite were moving northward to Union Square and Gramercy Park.

“The elegant row houses of East 10th Street were built at the beginning of a radical demographic shift in New York City that would swell the city’s population and completely transform entire neighborhoods, including the still-developing area around Tompkins Square,” states the report.

Their time as single-family row houses overlooking a peaceful square was ending. The East 10th Street homes were subdivided into separate apartments in the coming decades of the later 19th century; on the eastern end of the street, tenement-style buildings, like the ones above, would be constructed.

“By 1860 the block on East 10th Street facing Tompkins Square was nearly complete, with almost every lot improved with a substantial brick building that survives to this day,” notes the report. One exception: the Tompkins Square Branch of the New York Public Library, an elegant Classical Revival building designed by McKim, Mead, and White and completed in 1904 (below photo, middle).

Through the 20th century, many of the buildings have had facelifts, and demographic changes once again influenced the type of residents living inside them.

East Tenth Street’s development mirrors the development of the neighborhood, and as you walk past these lovely buildings, you can feel that adrenaline rush of potential and possibilities that continues to draw people to the East Village.

[Third image: Hooker’s New Pocket Plan of the City of New York; sixth image: “Tompkins Park, N.Y. City,” Saul Kovner, 1934]

When everyone in New York ate at the Automat

March 22, 2021

The tables were clean, the machines that dispensed coffee, sandwiches, pie, and other items always in order, and the food actually tasty—at least, that’s what New Yorkers who had the opportunity to eat at a Horn & Hardart Automat always say.

The Automat was a welcoming place for newcomers to New York City as well as those who didn’t have much more than loose change to buy their meals. At their peak the city had at least 50 Automats. The spirit of the Automat was a democratic one, according to this rhyme from a 1933 Sun article:

‘Said the technocrat
To the Plutocrat
To the autocrat
And the Democrat—
Let’s all go eat at the Automat!’”

If only we all could still…the last one closed up shop in Manhattan in 1991.

The short life of a 1960s East Village rock venue

March 22, 2021

The unassuming building a 105 Second Avenue has a long history catering to popular entertainment.

In the 1920s, the venue served as a Yiddish Theater at a time when Second Avenue had so many similar theaters, the street was nicknamed the Jewish Rialto. By the 1940s, the space was turned into a movie palace known as the Leow’s Commodore (below in 1940).

And in the 1960s it was transformed once again for an entirely different audience: young rock fans flocking to the recently christened East Village eager to see bands like the Doors, the Allman Brothers, and other stars of the late 1960s music scene.

Named the Fillmore East by concert promoter Bill Graham and opened on March 8, 1968, it was the New York version of his San Francisco concert hall the Fillmore. With Graham at the helm, the place became legendary.

“Graham operated a tight ship, demanding nothing less than excellence from his staff and the artists who inhabited his stage,” wrote Corbin Reiff in a 2016 Rolling Stone article.

“To him, everything was about the fan experience, and he went out of his way to provide the best kind of atmosphere to take in a live performance, from the ornate, hand-rendered posters he printed up to announce the gigs…and even the barrel of free apples he left out for people departing at the end of the night.”

“As a result, the bands and artists who played the Fillmore East, as well as its San Francisco counterpart, typically went the extra mile,” continued Reiff. “For just $3, $4 or $5, you, as a ticketholder, were granted a pass to be taken to someplace truly magical.”

Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd all hit the stage. But it might have been the Doors who gave the most hypnotic performance.

In the audience for one of their shows was future star Patti Smith; Robert Mapplethorpe had worked there and gave her a free pass. She recounted the experience in her powerful memoir about their relationship amid the late 1960s and early 1970s city in Just Kids. While the audience was transfixed by Jim Morrison, she “observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness.”

“He exuded a mixture of beauty and self-loathing, and mystic pain, like a West Coast Saint Sebastian,” wrote Smith, who right then realized she could do what Morrison was doing. “When anyone asked how the Doors were, I just said they were great. I was somewhat ashamed of how I had responded to their concert.”

For a rock venue with such a hallowed reputation, it lasted a very short time—just three years. “At the time, Mr. Graham blamed the greediness of some top rock musicians who he, said would rather play a 20,000‐seat ball like Madison Square Garden (one hour’s work, $50,000) than the 2,600‐seat Fillmore East (about four hours’ work, roughly $20, 000),” stated the New York Times on the club’s closing night, June 29, 1971.

That wasn’t the end of 105 Second Avenue’s life as a music venue. In the 1980s it was resurrected as the dance club The Saint. Today, the ground floor is—what else?—a bank branch.

[Top photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; second image: ultimateclassicrock.com; third image: Yale Joel/LIFE Magazine]