Feel the nostalgia for these Manhattan store signs

November 28, 2016

Maybe we’ve hit the commercial real estate saturation point, or maybe it’s just a coincidence.

But a lot of vintage store signs seem to have come back into view this year…and have yet to be covered up again by the signage of a new store tenant.

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Holiday shopping season is the perfect time to view the above sign for 1980s Upper West Side store The Last Wound-Up, which specialized in new and retro toys and gadgets powered by a wind-up knob.

The shop was located on Columbus Avenue and 73rd Street. (Thanks to ENY reader Amy for the snap.)

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Before Duane Reade colonized Manhattan, there were pharmacies like this one, spotted on Eighth Avenue in Midtown.

It has no name and no frills—but look at that wonderful 1970s-yellow pestle and mortar icon above the entrance!

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Speaking of no frills, you’ve got to love this sign, on First Avenue in the East Village. The store recently housed an eatery called Tree. But “restaurant” is better, no?

This is the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

November 28, 2016

It made its debut on Christmas Eve 1931, in the muddy pit that would one day become Rockefeller Center.

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A group of mostly Italian immigrant hardhats knocking down the brownstones on the eventual site of 30 Rock chipped in to buy it—a very humble 18-foot balsam.

rockefellercenter1945edwardratcliffx2010-11-8801They put up the skinny tree inside the construction site and draped it in tin cans, paper, and tinsel—as well as traditional cranberry garlands and foil from blasting caps used during dynamiting, according to a 2015 New York Times piece.

Public Christmas trees in parks had been a thing since the first one graced Madison Square Park in 1912.

But the workers in the pit were honoring more than just the holiday (and the fact that they had jobs during this Depression year).

They were celebrating because it was payday, with each man receiving his wages in an envelope beside their tree.

Two years later, with Rockefeller Center completed, the owners decided to erect and decorate a real Christmas tree, a 65-footer that went up outside the then–RCA building.

rockefellercentertree1972c2010-11-8796Every year since, the holiday tree has delighted national crowds during its annual lighting ceremony and has been visited by hordes of thousands.

In its 85-year history, the tree has had its disruptions. Thanks to a war-mandated blackout, the two trees at 30 Rock weren’t lit in 1944.

In 1979, in an effort to bring attention to the American hostages held in Iran at the time, two men climbed the tree. One hung on for 80 minutes chanting “Free the 50.” (He was given a summons for trespassing.)

In 1971, with recycling catching on, the tree was turned into mulch for the first time—a tradition that continues once the tree has completed its duty come January.

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[Top photo: AP, 1931; second photo: MCNY 1945, x2010.11.8801; third photo: MCNY, 1973, x2010.11.8796; fourth image: MCNY, 1945, F2011.33.2122Q]

A hidden magical garden behind the FDR Drive

November 28, 2016

Considering the density of its streets, New York is a city with a surprising number of hidden gardens: some in churchyards, others created on empty lots, and some designed to mask garages and other unpretty structures.

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But few of these green spaces are as hard to get to as the quarter-acre oasis between the FDR Drive and First Avenue, behind the cluster of buildings that make up Bellevue Hospital Center.

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It’s the Bellevue Sobriety Garden, a strangely magical place that mixes sculpture, trees, flowers, mosaics, doll parts, cement, and foliage.

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Started by a Bellevue psychiatrist in 1989 and tended to by recovering addicts in the hospital’s Chemical Recovery Program, this isn’t your typical serene green space.

You won’t find many tourists or crowds here; it’s accessible via a lonely stretch of 26th Street beyond First Avenue or from an FDR Drive off ramp. And it’s not a landscaped masterpiece; grass can be patchy, and it has a wild, overgrown look to it.

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But that’s all part of its whimsical and imaginative charm, a garden straight out of an artist’s fairy tale. It’s not exactly a secret, but if you visit, you’ll feel like you stumbled into a New York you never knew.

The entrance, flanked by enormous statues and pieces of old buildings, welcomes visitors while encouraging them not to steal the veggies and fruits grown here in warmer months.

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Slender cobblestone paths take you past patches of flowers to benches, trellises, a wooden bridge, and a tiny gingerbread-like house. Along the way you’ll walk past mosaics and sculptures of sheep, dogs, pigs, and a snake.

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Take a walk through it, and you’ll forget about the parking lot next door and the roaring traffic on the FDR Drive.

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Back in 2014, someone came in and vandalized the garden, defacing its statues. By the looks of things now, on a warmish autumn day, everything seems back in order—a peaceful and magical respite not very accessible to the average New Yorker.

Times Square used to be a festival of neon light

November 24, 2016

Behold Times Square when it was New York’s premier entertainment district, a festival of neon lights emanating from billboards and theaters.

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The postcard carries a 1945 postmark, but it appears to depict Times Square in 1940. Two films released that year, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and The Westerner, with Gary Cooper, blaze across movie marquees.

A turkey dinner at the Municipal Lodging House

November 24, 2016

It’s Thanksgiving Day, 1931, in New York City.

By early 1932, one in three city residents will be out of work. Roughly 1.6 million were on the relief rolls, according to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Down and out New Yorkers began building a Hooverville in Central Park.

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And an astounding 10,000 men waited for their turn to sit down to dinner at the Municipal Lodging House, the public city shelter for homeless men, women, and children at the foot of East 25th Street.

This New York City Department of Records photo captured a group of these men in bulky overcoats and hats. They’re young and old, mostly oblivious to the camera and focused only on consuming their turkey and potatoes.

4 minutes of Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, 1945

November 24, 2016

Didn’t get up in time to watch this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—in person or on TV?

No problem. Instead, travel back in time to 1945 and take a look at this vintage parade footage, which offers excellent views of mid-century Central Park West, clowns who are not scary, and parade floats inspired by fairy tales rather than blockbuster movies.

1945 was a milestone year for the parade, which started in 1924: it had been suspended for the three previous years because of rubber and helium shortages brought on by World War II, according to AM New York.

Firefighters racing to a blaze in 1905 New York

November 21, 2016

Their engine is pulled by horses, and the long coats these smoke eaters are wearing look awfully bulky. But that’s how New York’s firefighters did it in 1905, when this postcard image was made.

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thegildedageinnewyorkcover-1Amazingly, the city’s fire department had only been professionalized since 1865. Prior to that, various volunteer engine and ladder companies put out New York’s fires, sometimes competing with one another to do so.

Find out more about the rough and tumble early days of the FDNY, when the volunteer companies also served as social and political clubs, in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.

An odd 1848 building known as Odd Fellows’ Hall

November 21, 2016

Sometimes a building you’ve passed a thousand times in New York suddenly stops you in your tracks.

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That’s what happened on a walk to Grand and Centre Streets, when I took a hard look at the curious fortress-like rectangle on the southeast corner.

oddfellowshallnypl1863Its handsome brownstone facade, Queen Anne mansard roof, and many decorated chimneys looked out of place in an area of mostly tenements and low-rise lofts.

The building came off like a visitor from another New York. And in a way, it was.

It was constructed way back in 1848 as the New York headquarters of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization that aided the poor.

[Why the term “odd fellows”? When the group first formed in 17th century Europe before spreading to various cities in America, it was considered odd that people would come together to help the disadvantaged in their community, according to the Odd Fellows website.]

Designed by Trench and Snook, the architects behind retail king A.T. Stewart’s Marble Palace at Broadway and Chambers Street and many of New York’s cast iron edifices, this “Corinthian pilastered palace,” as the AIA Guide to New York City described it, originally had just four stories and a domed roof.

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Still, it was celebrated for its beauty and uniqueness. At a dedication of the building in 1849, a large procession marched down Broadway, blocking all omnibus traffic, until it reached Grand Street amid cheering and music, according to The Evening Post on June 5.

oddfellowshall1975mcnyInside was just as lovely, according to Miller’s New York as It Is, from 1866. “It contains a series of highly ornamented lodge-rooms, richly furnished and in different styles of architecture,” the guide noted.

Odd Fellows’ Hall only served as the organization’s home base in Manhattan until the 1880s.

The group moved uptown, and an extensive renovation—two more stories, the mansard roof—was done to make it more appealing to new commercial and industrial tenants.

Photos from the 1970s show the building to be rundown and vacant. Today, this odd reminder of a pre–Civil War architectural loveliness seems to have been restored.

[Second and third images: Odd Fellows’ Hall in the 19th century; fourth image: the building in 1975, MCNY 2013.3.1.32]

Ghost signs lurking along the Lower East Side

November 21, 2016

Urban explorers get giddy when they come across ghost signs: faded ads and store signage for businesses that have long since departed their original location.

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The Lower East Side is full of these phantoms, thanks to changes in the neighborhood that have displaced longtime retailers and services—like the expansion of Chinatown and the hipsterization of downtown Manhattan.

Turn the corner at Allen and Grand Streets, and you’ll see one ghost sign: a two-story vintage ad on the side of a tenement, with a wonderful arrow pointing toward a nonexistent entrance. What happened to Martin Albert Decorators? They moved to East 19th Street, then to 39th Street.

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At the start of the Great Depression, close to 3,550 Chinese Laundries operated in New York City, reported one source.  This laundry at 123 Allen Street was one of them.

Nice that the bar which took over this lower-level space kept the weathered old Chinese Laundry sign.

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There must be hundreds of massage businesses in the area right now. Lurking beneath this back and foot rub sign is the word “sportswear,” a remnant of the Lower East Side’s past as a center for clothing, fabric, and linen shops.

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This ghost sign at 302-306 Grand Street lies hidden under a newer awning. H & G Cohen sold towels and shams, the sign tells us . . . but no digitized trace of the business could be found.

The first children’s court was in the East Village

November 14, 2016

childrencourtstreetsignSay you were a 19th century New York kid picked up by cops for pickpocketing or stealing candy.

Like all alleged offenders, your case would go before a judge, and you might even have been held in one of the city’s infamous prisons, like the Tombs, with other adults.

But in the early 1900s, a novel idea hit in the city: trying minors under age 16 in a special court just for kids, to “guard children against the exposure and environment of crime,” as a 1902 New York Times piece put it.

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City law already made a few concessions for minors; for example, they waited for their case in a separate room, so they wouldn’t come into contact with “the intemperate and dissolute classes that are found in police courts.”

But reformers wanted to take it a step further. Most of the crimes kids committed were misdemeanors, and the thinking was that a separate court “inclined toward mercy,” in the words of another Times writer, would help keep children from becoming hardened criminals.

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With this in mind, the city’s first Children’s Court opened that year at Third Avenue and 11th Street (second image) in today’s East Village, “with much fanfare,” wrote Robert Pigott in his 2014 book, New York Legal Landmarks.

The building had been part of the criminal justice system in New York already; it was the former headquarters of The Department of Public Charities and Correction.

childrencourt22ndstreetx2010-7-5154Thousands of kids were brought in during the court’s early years, and the top charges were disorderly conduct and petit larceny. Forgery, arson, and even drunkeness also made the list of offenses.

“William Buckley, fourteen years old, was charged with intoxication,” read one Times article in 1905. “He also realized that he had lost his job, by which he had supported himself for two years since the death of his mother.”

“Justice Deuel talked to the lad about the dangers of drinking, released him on parole, and told him to report at once to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in the event that a friendly laundryman could not find a place for him.”

Children’s Court didn’t curb the number of crimes committed by kids. But it was deemed a success because judges were able to keep children out of the criminal justice system by giving them suspended sentences or probation, not jail or reformatory time.

Of the young offenders brought in, it is “reasonable to state that at least 50 percent would have been committed to institutions under the old method,'” the Times quoted the chief probation officer.

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In 1912, Children’s Court moved to East 22nd Street (above left). It’s now part of the city’s Family Court system, but the second building still stands today and is part of Baruch College, a branch of CUNY (above).

[Second photo: MCNY, 1911, 2010.11.41961911; third photo: LOC/Bain Collection, 1902; fourth photo: MCNY, 1917, 2010.7.5154; fifth photo: Google]