The mystery of an East Village lager beer sign

May 20, 2019

I’m not the first old sign enthusiast who came across this beauty of a beer sign on the tenement at 317 East Fifth Street.

Grieve wrote it up back in January, and I’m sure other fans walking along this quiet East Village block noticed the ancient signage, too.

“S. Cort Wines & Lager Beer” the faded outline reads on the left side of the store, over a large window supported by what appears to be a Corinthian-like column.

Looks like the same words appear on the right side of the storefront, which is divided by the building’s stoop.

Apparently workers who were recently renovating this ground floor storefront between First and Second Avenues uncovered evidence of this old East Village liquor store.

Or was Cort’s actually a bar—one that poured many a growler for locals as well cops from the Ninth Precinct a few doors down?

The tenement was constructed in 1867, but the basement-level store wasn’t put in place until 1893, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation via an update at EVG.

But it’s still a mystery when this establishment operated.

Considering the fact that Cort is a German name, it wouldn’t surprise me if S. Cort’s dates back to the turn of the century, when today’s East Village was 19th century New York’s Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany stronghold.

An apartment house rises out of this 1893 school

May 20, 2019

In the late 19th century, New York City went on a public school building spree, constructing several handsome new schools across Manhattan to educate all children, but especially those of the poor and working classes.

One of these schools, completed in 1893, was a spectacular romanesque building that resembled the Dakota—trimmed with brownstone and brick and tricked out with arched windows and gabled roofs.

Public School 35 (above, in 1920) occupied the southwest corner of First Avenue and 51st Street (the former site of the 18th century Beekman mansion) for the next 70 years.

What was it like attending school here?

One New York Times letter writer summed it up this way in 1987: “My fellow-students, although by no means an assemblage of miniature angels, had been cautioned by hard-working parents to derive maximum benefits from the free education denied their European-born parents.”

By the 1960s, PS 35 was no longer. For the next few decades it was a mostly empty neighborhood eyesore. The old school even did a stint as a homeless shelter for women.

In the 2000s, however, this striking building took on a new role: as the lower-floor facade of a 20-story condo designed by Costas Kondylis.

The interior walls were knocked out and a modern apartment tower was built inside the facade. (Above, before the apartment building was started).

Don’t give too much credit to the developer, though, for preserving the facade. The school earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Presumably the facade of PS 93 couldn’t be totally leveled, so the sleek condo building now rises inside the school—a curious mix of old and new New York on a Turtle Bay block.

[Third photo: NYPL; Fourth photo: Turtle Bay Association]

This is how to decode any Manhattan address

May 20, 2019

These days, New Yorkers need only to whip out their phones to figure out the cross street for any Manhattan address.

But in the pre-Google Maps era, city residents had another way of deciphering cross streets. Not to scare you, but it involves a little math.

This guide, the size of a business card, sums up the formulas, which varied depending on what street address you wanted to decode.

Ephemeral reader Rich L. found this old-school gem while going through old papers and thinks it was printed in the 1960s. Try it, it really works!

Two beautiful mystery signs on a Flatiron facade

May 13, 2019

Lots of older New York buildings have stylized signs that contain the building’s street address.

But none are as unusual and mysterious as the two signs affixed to the facade of 144 Fifth Avenue, a four-story, late 19th century walkup near 19th Street.

“One Hundred Forty Four” the first one playfully proclaims. “Fifth Avenue” reads the second sign.

Both signs look like medallions or shields, yet the numerals and letters seem inspired by Art Nouveau—a type of design popular in the early 20th century in Europe that didn’t quite take off the same way in New York.

Art Nouveau borrows its twists and curves from nature, and each sign has what looks like flowers drooping at the bottom.

Who added these to the building? It’s a mystery. (At left, 144 Fifth Avenue in 1940.)

However, at the turn of the century the building was occupied by a furniture dealer and decorator, according to the Evening World. Later it housed an art gallery called Cottier & Co.

Perhaps one of these artistically minded occupants thought to create the signs, which blend in behind the fire escape and are almost impossible to see.

[Third photo: NYC Tax Photo Department of Records]

A midcentury artist’s New York from her window

May 13, 2019

Born in 1887 in Vienna, Emma Fordyce MacRae grew up in early 20th century New York—attending the private Chapin and Brearley Schools before enrolling in the Art Students League in 1911 and studying with John Sloan.

She made a name for herself as a member of the Philadelphia Ten, a group of female artists who exhibited together.

As the 20th century went on, MacRae married and moved to 888 Park Avenue. She apparently never stopped painting, keeping a studio at 12 West 69th Street, according to her New York Times obituary in 1974.

“New York From My Window” was painted between 1957 and 1962. It’s a deceptively simple work depicting a streetscape under blue skies almost empty of traffic and people.

What I want to know is, where exactly is the window she painted from, and what sliver of New York did this artist who should be better known immortalize?

The 1868 rowhouses built into Bloomingdale’s

May 13, 2019

Stand at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue and look up at the Art Deco main entrance of Bloomingdale’s.

As you take in the enormity of this low-rise, black and gray department store, you might think it consists of one uniform building extending all the way to Third Avenue.

But halfway down 60th Street, you’ll see a modern-day time capsule connecting the Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue ends of the store.

Here is a stretch of cream-colored rowhouses with fanciful details and the kind of mansard roofs that were all the rage in the Gilded Age city.

These rowhouses, once known as 162-170 East 60th Street, were built in 1868 and actually predate the Bloomingdale’s store by 18 years.

“The five buildings, a picturesque side-street surprise that has escaped demolition at least once, were developed as a tide of post-Civil-War rowhouses swept up the East Side,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1990.

The rowhouses “were probably like others on the street shown in later views: high-stooped brownstones in the Italianate style, three windows wide, with a low fourth floor under a modest mansard roof,” wrote Gray.

Bloomingdale’s acquired the rowhouses the way they acquired the land on the rest of the block from Third to Lexington Avenues and 59th to 60th Streets—in pieces in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the 1880s, three were turned into a store annex, and at some point they may also have served as a loading dock.

Today, these five former upscale residences sandwiched in the middle of Bloomingdale’s go unnoticed by most shoppers, even with the old “Bloomingdale Brothers” sign over the street-level windows.

[Second image: pdxhistory.com]

A faded East Village sign for a glazier’s workshop

May 6, 2019

Ideal Glass is a nondescript name for a glass business. Lots of products and services were “ideal” in the mid-20th century—like the old Ideal Hosiery store on Grand Street, which had its own wonderful 1950s sign.

And who was Samuel Cohen’s son, or Samuel Cohen, for that matter? The glass makers who ran this store at 20-22 East Second Street in the East Village may have been lost to the ages.

Since 2004 the garage-like building has been occupied by Ideal Glass, the performance space.

They pay homage to the previous tenants here with this note on their website: the “original space at 22 E 2nd St was transformed from a 1950’s glazier’s workshop into an independent gallery space and art collective.”

A downtown alley’s Belgian block paving stones

May 6, 2019

Franklin Place is another one of those delightfully hidden alleys you stumble upon in Lower Manhattan—a one-block thread connecting Franklin and White Streets between Church Street and Broadway.

 Somehow, a new luxury condo managed to get an address on Franklin Place.

But no other business or residence opens onto this former 19th century lane, known as Scott’s Alley until the early 1850s, according to the Tribeca Citizen.

Long lined with loft buildings used for manufacturing, Franklin Place is actually a private street, owned by the property owners whose buildings run along either side of the alley, the Citizen reported in 2017.

Franklin Place is an evocative place to stand and imagine what today’s Tribeca was like almost 200 years ago. (Above, looking toward Franklin Street today; at right, the same view shot between 1970-1990.)

One aspect of the street that makes it even more redolent of the post-colonial, antebellum city?

The Belgian block paving stones, which nearby alleys like Cortlandt Alley and Benson Street don’t have.

The blocks are appropriately worn down and broken in some places, a testament to the industry Franklin Place (below, looking toward Franklin Street) has seen.

That’s not to mention the horse hoofs, wagon wheels, and foot traffic pounding the blocks day after day after day.

New York City still has roughly 15 miles of granite block streets, according to a 2017 Historic Districts Council report.

It’s unclear why these paving stones are called Belgian block, but the city began laying them down as early as the mid-1850s.

“The surviving stone we refer to as Belgian block began to be used in the 1870s,” notes the HDC report.

“Belgian blocks were hard, durable, and offered a much smoother and more regular surface than cobblestones—’a very solid and impervious roadbed,’ according to an 1895 report in The City Record,” the report explains.

“Such qualities made them particularly suited for use along waterfronts and other areas with heavy commercial traffic.”

“By 1900, the stones used for such purposes were shaped to a relatively uniform width of between 4 and 5 inches, apparently proportioned to the size of a horseshoe.”

Still, Belgian blocks had their problems. In the rain, they became slick and slippery. And they were especially noisy, according to the HDC.

Asphalt came into use in the 1890s, and slowly, Belgian blocks disappeared from the cityscape. You can still find them downtown, though, and Franklin Place contains a treasure trove of them.

[Third photo: MCNY, 2013.3.1.285; Fifth image: NYPL, 1925]

What two 19th century church fences tell you

May 6, 2019

Two of Manhattan’s oldest houses of worship, St. Mark’s Church and Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both have lovely fences around their churchyards. But each fence is very different.

The black cast-iron fence at St. Mark’s (above, in 1936) was added to the church in 1828, according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation.

That’s almost 30 years after the Georgian-style church was completed, built beyond the city center on the former bouwerie, or farm, once owned by Dutch colonial governor Petrus Stuyvesant.

The fence around St. Patrick’s, on the other hand, is a red brick wall spanning Prince Street and continuing up Mulberry and Mott Streets on either side of the church grounds.

The brick wall went up in the 1830s (at left, in 1880), designed to protect Irish Catholic parishioners from the mobs of Nativist New Yorkers bent on letting them know they weren’t welcome.

Both churches are still houses of worship today. And as different as their fences seem, they do have one thing in common.

Each one has the name of the church’s street emblazoned on it: Second Avenue for St. Mark’s, and Mulberry and Prince Streets for St. Patrick’s.

These hard-to-see street names have survived on the fences for almost two centuries, letting New Yorkers know where they were in an era before Google maps and very visible street signs.

[Second image: NYPL]

The red fire alarm relics on New York streets

April 29, 2019

They used to sit on so many city street corners, these red cylinder-like posts with an inside compartment for calling the fire department. In a pre-iPhone era, this was how New Yorkers let the FDNY know they were needed to put out a fire.

Over the years, the style has changed—but I’m specifically talking about these torch-topped beauties, more pale pink in color, with early 20th century ornamentation on what’s basically a piece of street furniture.

I’m not sure how many are still on city curbs. I spotted this one at First Avenue and 58th Street, and it felt like a relic from another era, defaced with stickers and graffiti.

As of a few years ago, approximately 15,000 street fire alarms of all kinds remained on city streets, reported Crain’s New York Business in 2017.

“The boxes were used 11,440 times to call the Fire Department last year,” wrote Crain’s. “That is less than once per box, on average.”

“Only 13% of those calls were for actual emergencies, and less than 1.5%, or 167, were about fires, including just 10 for serious structural fires.”

No surprise, the city would like to get rid of them—and both the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations failed to do so, after an organization that advocated for the deaf sued the city to keep the alarms.

They won’t last forever, felled by either city administrators or new construction.

Take a moment to admire their artistry, and that these once-ubiquitous artifacts served a noble purpose.