Brooklyn’s most charming doughnut shop sign

July 6, 2020

New York once had lots of neighborhood doughnut places, and this stamp-size shop on Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay keeps the tradition alive. Also known as Shaikh’s Place, Donut Shoppe still has the original sign installed by the shop’s first owner decades ago.

The shop has diversified over the years, adding to the menu tacos, chicken sandwiches, and other eats reflecting the changing demographics of this working class neighborhood. But people still flock here for the heavenly glazed and iced spheres of fried dough.

[Thanks to Duane Sherwood for sending the photo]

The Medieval granite fortress once on 14th Street

July 6, 2020

It rose like King Arthur’s castle on 14th Street: a stone citadel complete with arched entryways, crenellations on top of its towers, and what look like arrow loops from the very top, the better to rain arrows down on enemy invaders.

What was this imposing granite fortress? The Ninth Regiment 14th Street Armory, completed in 1896 just west of Sixth Avenue.

For eight decades, this rough-cut armory held court on the north side of the street—first amid department stores, the 14th Street Theatre, and residential brownstones, and then among a changed neighborhood of light manufacturing and discount houses.

This wasn’t the first armory on the site. It replaced an earlier one opened in 1863 that extended to 15th Street and was nicknamed the “Palace Garden.”

Both the older and newer armory were constructed as part of a great wave of armory-building in New York City between the Civil War and World War I. That’s when the US Army went from a “state-controlled, decentralized army of citizen soldiers” to a “federally maintained, centralized corps of professional soldiers,” wrote Nancy L.Todd in New York’s Historic Armories: An Illustrated History.

“Armories had three basic functions: they served as military facilities, clubhouses, and public monuments,” wrote Todd. As far as a public monument, the 14th Street Armory was a spectacular expression of power and might.

You’d think such an armory would be landmarked and preserved—for its architecture or its historical backstory.

But in 1971, New York bulldozed the castle and replaced it with a new concrete armory building (above, in the 1980s). It was described as “a gross and overbearing modern drill hall,” by the AIA Guide to New York City, according to the New York Times in 1993.

By the 1990s, the new armory had outlasted its military function; it was closed in 1993. What to do with a massive masonry building on a major street that was starting to attract new residents and retail stores?

Other New York City armories no longer used by the military were turned into homeless shelters (Brooklyn’s 23rd Regiment Armory), sports complexes (Armory Track on Fort Washington Avenue), and arts centers (the Seventh Regiment/Park Avenue Armory).

New York State, which owned the building, decided to go with a mixed-use developer. Today, the site is occupied by the McBurney YMCA and topped by apartments.

[First and third images: New York State Military Images; second and fourth photos: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; fifth photo: NYPL]

A garden rises where a fireman died by arson

July 6, 2020

In 1977—with city coffers empty, crime rising, and residents fleeing at historically high rates—more than 13,000 New York City buildings were intentionally set on fire.

One of these arson fires happened on July 2 at 358 East Eighth Street, an abandoned tenement between Avenues C and D. The blaze, set with diesel oil, broke out on the fifth floor at about 3:10 pm.

Firefighters from Engine 15 saw the smoke while heading back to their station house on Pitt Street after responding to a false alarm. They detoured to the burning tenement to take on the four-alarm blaze, according to the New York Daily News on July 7, 1977.

With the firefighters on the fifth floor, the arsonist allegedly came back and set a second fire on a lower floor, reported the Daily News. (At right, the six-story building in 1940)

“When the new outburst of flames surged upward, the firemen crawled to a window where Ladder Company 11 had extended its cherry picker,” stated the Daily News.

One fireman made it to the cherry picker; three were overcome by smoke inhalation and had to be rescued inside.

Firefighter Martin Celic, 25, a Staten Island native who was to be married later that year, tried to get in the cherry picker. He tripped and fell 70 feet to the sidewalk.

Celic spent a week at Bellevue with massive head injuries before dying on July 10, his fiancee at his bedside.

A 17-year-old was arrested for setting the fire; he allegedly told officials that he did it to prevent winos and junkies from getting inside the building. In 1978 he was ordered to stand trial for arson and murder.

In 1978, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, admitting that he set the fire, according to the Daily News on July 7 of that year. He received 8-25 years.

This tragic story would be just a footnote of 1970s New York City history if not for the efforts of community members.

“Longtime neighborhood residents Ansley and Kelly Carnahan had begun gardening in the lot adjacent to the abandoned building in 1975,” states NYC Parks. “After the burnt-out building was condemned and torn down, the Carnahans and other local residents expanded their garden to the new lot.”

They named it the Firemen’s Garden (or Fireman’s Garden; it’s spelled both ways), “in honor of those who risk their lives daily in every borough and district,” continues NYC Parks. “Marty Celic’s family donated benches made of cedar and wrought iron.”

The garden became a nonprofit in 1989, then was transferred to the New York City Parks Department control in 1999. Shady, leafy, and with brick paths inside, it’s one of many firefighter tributes throughout the city.

For many New Yorkers, the Firemen’s Garden is a little off the beaten path. A “special ceremony is held in mid-July in remembrance of the sacrifices of all New York City firemen,” NYC Parks says, might be worth making the trek for.

[First and second photo: New York Daily News; third photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services]

Travel back in time with vintage NYC store signs

June 29, 2020

The New York City of the moment is bringing many people down. Luckily, we can escape with a little time traveling thanks to these old-school store signs.

Matles Florist has been in Manhattan since 1962, and the vintage sign with the very 1960s typeface shows it. The store is on 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

Is there anything better than a not-fancy New York pizza place? I don’t know how long Belmora, on East 57th near Lexington, has been cranking out slices, but the sign in the colors of Italy looks like it goes back to the 1970s.

Mike Bloomberg was apparently a fan of J.G. Melon, the corner restaurant made famous by its burgers. The place got its start in 1972, and it’s certainly possible the no-frills vertical neon sign dates back to the 1970s as well.

A “glorious display of pageantry” on Fifth Avenue

June 29, 2020

Imagine if Fifth Avenue today was decked out in American flags as it was on July 4, 1916—with the Stars and Stripes flying from the roofs and facades of so many buildings.

Impressionist painter Childe Hassam captured this scene, likely near his longtime studio at 95 Fifth Avenue at 17th Street.

Massachusetts-born Hassam, a successful and accomplished artist in his era, gave the painting an illustrious name: “The Fourth of July, 1916 (The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May).”

The painting demonstrates how “New Yorkers rallied with patriotic fervor to support the ‘preparedness movement’ in anticipation of the nation’s inevitable entry into the Great War in Europe,” states the New-York Historical Society, which was gifted the painting in 2016.

“Advocates of the preparedness cause staged parades in cities all over the country from 1914 until 1916. One such parade in May 1916―up Broadway and Fifth Avenue, led by an enormous, 95-foot flag and lasting over 11 hours―inspired Hassam to begin working on a series of works, which he painted over the course of three years from 1916 to 1918.”

Hassam supported the US entry into the war; he was a francophile who studied and lived in Paris, like many of his contemporaries.

[Above left, “The Avenue in the Rain,” 1917; at right, “Flags on the Waldorf,” 1916]

A grander parade on July 4, 1916 inspired “The Fourth of July, 1916,” described by the New-York Historical Society as a “glorious display of pageantry.”

Hassam ultimately completed about 30 works in his flags series, depicting the US flag on other city buildings and on Allies Day in May 1917 (above).

If you like his flags, you must see his evocative streetscapes that capture the beauty and poetry on day-to-day life in our metropolis.

The brick beauty of a 1902 East Side power plant

June 29, 2020

Walk along the East River Greenway on the Upper East Side—the breezy riverside path beside the FDR Drive—and you’ll pass hospital buildings, apartment residences, and parks.

But a remnant of a different New York appears as you approach 74th Street.

It’s a dirty red brick and stone fortress, a massive edifice with enormous Romanesque arched windows, the rare building that comes off as hulking and massive while also graceful and elegant.

This citadel could be a former factory or armory. But it’s actually a power plant—something of a companion to a similar power station built across Manhattan at roughly the same time on 11th Avenue and 59th Street.

Completed in 1902 and still in use today, the 74th Street coal-powered generating plant enabled elevated train steam locomotives running on Manhattan’s avenues to switch to electricity.

The debut of electric-powered el trains marked a huge shift in health and safety.

“At the turn of the twentieth century, the powerhouse enabled the transition from steam locomotives to cleaner electric trains, fundamentally improving conditions in the city,” states Columbia University’s Arts Initiative, about a 2014 New York Transit Museum exhibit focusing on the 74th Street power station.

“Before the switch, smoke, cinders, and soot from steam-powered elevated trains plagued Manhattan, blackening the air and dirtying the streets. With the opening of the Manhattan Railway Company’s 74th Street Powerhouse in 1902, those irksome steam engines soon became a thing of the past.”

I’ve passed this powerhouse several times recently, and though I didn’t know its backstory, it always looked familiar to me.

Turns out the red-brick building is in this 1934 painting of the East River, a favorite of mine. Painter Jara Henry Valenta gives us a still and solitary view of the coal boats waiting at the water’s edge, with no FDR drive in the way.

“Though the 74th Street Power Station is still in use today, it is no longer coal powered,” states the Museum of the City of New York.

“In 1959 the plant was taken over by the Consolidated Edison Company and it continued to supply coal power to substations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. In 1999 new boilers and gas turbine generators replaced steam ones and the station continues to contribute to the city’s electric power grid.”

MCNY’s digital collection of photos of the plant under construction is fascinating, as well as the images revealing the inside of this cavernous monument to power and energy.

[Third image: MCNY, F2012.53.270A; Fourth image, MCNY, F2012.53.308A]

The magnificence of Macy’s 1902 front entrance

June 22, 2020

Chances are you haven’t been to Macy’s lately, considering that the flagship Herald Square store has been closed since the pandemic began, and it was also the site of looting during the protests earlier this month.

But with Macy’s set to reopen tomorrow along with other retailers, remind yourself of the grandeur of this iconic New York City emporium by taking a look at what was once the store’s Beaux Arts, gilded front entrance—with its timepiece squarely in the center.

The entrance would have fit in nicely with the architectural styles of 1902, when the Macy’s made the risky leap from a collection of buildings on 14th Street—part of the famed shopping district known as Ladies Mile—to Herald Square.

The other department stores of Ladies Mile are largely gone, but mighty Macy’s is a survivor…just like the city where the store started in 1858 (above).

What the White Horse Tavern meant in the 1950s

June 22, 2020

The rough edges are long gone from the White Horse Tavern, the corner bar at Hudson and West 11th Streets that’s been serving drinks (not always under that name) since 1880.

Originally this dark, old school bar (above, in 1961) catered to longshoremen and locals. Today, it’s spiffed up for a sidewalk cafe kind of crowd.

But for a moment in time in the 1950s, this saloon with the white horse heads in the windows became a place for writers.

These writers, mostly young men, gathered in the wood-paneled back room to talk books, culture, and politics with others from across the political spectrum.

The White Horse’s postwar literary crowd were drawn to Dylan Thomas (right), the Welsh poet who became a regular, reportedly because it reminded him of the bars in Wales.

It was also where he had his last drinks, having collapsed on the sidewalk after downing 18 shots of whiskey on November 3, 1953. Thomas died at St. Vincent’s Hospital three days later.

His death enhanced the White Horse’s rep (above in 1940), and young writers made the place their own, according to Dan Wakefield, at the time a 23-year-old freelance writer living on Jones Street.

“We regulars in the back room thought of ourselves as underdogs and rebels in Eisenhower’s America,” recalled Wakefield in his 1992 memoir, New York in the 1950s.

“Most often when I went to the White Horse I was waved to a table by Mike Harrington, the author and activist who served as the informal host of an ongoing seminar on culture and politics, dispensing information and opinion interspersed with great anecdotes about left-wing labor leaders and colorful factional fights of political splinter groups I could never keep straight….”

The writers of the White Horse weren’t just left-wing. “Adding to the social life and political repartee in the back room of the Horse were fresh young righties,” noted Wakefield, who wrote that they “turned out to be perfectly pleasant, witty, intelligent people, and we lefty liberals and right-wing conservatives found we had more common ground of conversation and interest with one another” then with those who wee apolitical.

It’s hard to imagine in our polarized social media era, but people really used to get together in person at bars and engage in free-ranging conversations about books, politics, and culture.

Art D’Lugoff, who opened the Village Gate nightclub, recalled in Wakefield’s book: “I used to make the rounds of the bars—Julius’s for those fat hamburgers on toast, then the San Remo, the Kettle of Fish, and the White Horse. Booze was a social thing. The bar scene wasn’t just to get drunk. It was like the public square in a town or a sidewalk cafe in Paris—comradely meeting and talking.”

At the White Horse, Wakefield mixed with Norman Mailer, Seymour Krim, and James Baldwin (above in 1955), who lived on Horatio Street and was often targeted by the working-class Irish and Italians in the neighborhood.

Baldwin wasn’t the only one, Wakefield wrote, explaining that local Villagers “regarded all bohemians as suspicious interlopers. The hostility toward all nonconformists was heightened during the McCarthy fervor of the fifties, when mostly Irish kids from the surrounding area made raids on the Horse, swinging fists and chairs, calling the regulars ‘Commies and faggots.'”

The White Horse (above in 1975) was something of a neighborhood respite, and the bar’s literary reputation continued even after Wakefield left New York City in 1962.

At some point decades later, the vibe changed. These days, under new ownership, the White Horse (above, 12 years ago) is more neighborhood pub than literary hangout. But for a short time in postwar Greenwich Village, a crowd of young writers mingled with one another and volleyed ideas and opinions around that back room with passion, energy, and excitement.

[Top image: LOC; second image: Bunny Adler; third image: Danwakefield.com; fourth image: Carl Van Vechten; fifth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; sixth photo: MCNY 2013.3.1.613]

The curious figures on a Park Avenue facade

June 22, 2020

Whoever designed the entrance of 55 Park Avenue South, an elegant building completed in 1923, had a sense of the curious and whimsical.

Walk to the front door of this 16-story Murray Hill apartment residence, and you’ll be greeted by what look like two squirrels overhead.

Two gargoyle-like male figures are tucked into the doorway as well, facing each other with their hands together, legs crossed.

Most interesting are the robed male figures carved into the building facade away from the entrance.

One holds a broom and a dustpan, though he’s resting and not using it. Another reads. One appears to have a pail or lamp at his side, plus something I can’t make out in his hand.

And one figure is holding something square on a string or rope, perhaps, touching it with the other hand, almost in contemplation.

A 1904 municipal bath hiding on 38th Street

June 15, 2020

Today, East 38th Street between First and Second Avenues is a scrubbed-clean kind of block.

Quiet and with little foot traffic, it’s overshadowed by a 57-story apartment tower on the south side and a beige office building on the north.

But next to the office building is a relic of the Manhattan that existed more than a century ago—when this far East Side block was crowded with life and people living in tenements and working in local factories, breweries, and abattoirs through the first half of the 20th century.

The building that today houses the Permanent Mission of Indonesia was once a public bath, known as the Milbank Memorial Bath—or the People’s Bath.

This modest bathhouse was one of the many free bathhouses constructed and funded by the city to give “the great unwashed” a place to get clean in an era when only a fraction of tenement dwellers had bathtubs.

It’s been altered and enlarged in the years since it opened in 1904. But the entrances and decorative motifs are visible, remnants of an era when even local bathhouses were designed to uplift and inspire.

This bathhouse has a tragic backstory. It was funded by Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, heiress of the Borden Condensed Milk Company, a philanthropist who gave millions to help disadvantaged New Yorkers.

“Anderson, who lost her only son to diphtheria in 1886, was convinced that health was at the foundation of human happiness,” wrote Julie Scelfo in The Women Who Made New York.

“While most affluent philanthropists funded projects that would display their largesse—a museum or a monument—Anderson instead donated funds to build a public bath. Her gift would become a model for the city, as it established the groundwork for hygiene being practiced as the very foundation of public health.”

In its early years, the Milbank baths didn’t attract huge crowds. (But as the photo above shows, kids seemed to like congregating around it.)

So the city launchd a public service campaign, putting up signs and sending around mailers to residents encouraging them to bathe at least once a week for sanitary reasons.

“Every voter in the district has received a postal card informing him that ‘to keep the body healthy requires at least one bath a week; more if possible,” wrote the Sun in 1913.

The campaign apparently worked, and attendance—which was always high in the summer, when people just wanted to cool off—shot up. “As a result of this campaign personal cleanliness is coming into fashion in the district,” added the Sun.

The 93 showers and nine tubs at Milbank only lasted until 1919, when the bathhouse was converted into a “public wet wash laundry, to meet the growing demand for this service,” according to Columbia University Libraries.

The building still stands, a totem of a very different East 38th Street.

[Second image: Columbia University Libraries; third image: MCNY 93.1.1.1995; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.1.18096; sixth image: wikipedia; seventh image: LOC]