Reading coal hole covers underfoot in Manhattan

You can learn a lot about New York’s makers and inventors just by coal hole covers—the decorative iron lids that lead to a storage space beneath the sidewalk where coal for heating a house or building was stored.

This beauty embossed with stars sits at Fifth Avenue and 30th Street.

“Dreier Safety Coal Hole Cover” it reads, listing an address in today’s East Village and a patent date, April 1919.

What’s a safety coal hole cover? A 1979 New York Times obituary for Abraham Dreier, the Polish immigrant who founded the Dreier Structural Steel Company in 1917, doesn’t explain it. But the obituary does say that Dreier patented the cover after he began his career making fire escapes.

Dreier’s company had an earlier address on the Lower East Side’s now-defunct Goerck Street.

What’s better than a coal hole cover than a coal hole cover with vault lights? This one was made by the Brooklyn Vault Light Company, once located on Monitor Street in Greenpoint. (The company had several addresses in the neighborhood, the ever-informative Walter Grutchfield says.)

Vault lights are basically glass skylights that allow sunlight into a space, though I’m not sure why that would be advantageous in a hole designed to store coal.

This coal hole cover is also a safety cover, patented in August 1905. The company operated from 1896 to 1958, according to Glassian. The company is gone, but the cover remains at East 73rd Street near Lexington Avenue, a quiet monument to the ironworks of another New York.

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8 Responses to “Reading coal hole covers underfoot in Manhattan”

  1. Bob Says:

    Walter Grutchfield adds (at

    The patent mark at the bottom reads Pat. April 1 – 1919. This patent (no. 1,298,678) can be read on google patents, where Abraham Dreier claimed to provide a coal hole cover which is “automatically locked to the frame when the former is in position over an opening.”

  2. Daniel Sheehan Says:

    My parents Home on Noble Street in Greenpoint Brooklyn had a coal chute with Elaborate design on it and the word UNION. When Greenpoint started to become gentrified historians began giving walking tours of the hood and the group would stop to talk about and admire the cover. One morning we came out to find only a hole in the ground. Alas, someone most likely a tour taker who knew the value of it swiped it. It had lived there for over 100 years. I wonder where it lives today.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      That’s terrible, what a shame. It’s hard to imagine someone with the audacity to steal a 100 year old iron cover from a Brooklyn Street.

  3. Nancy Anderson Says:

    Love the coal hole covers, but it’s worth a mention that thankfully, NYer’s no longer burn climate-killing coal for heat, hot water or electricity

  4. Henry Says:

    The reason to admit daylight through the coal hole cover was that under the cover was a room the coal was stored in. The coal was stored in a room under the cover, not a hole. Someone used a shovel to remove the coal and transport it to the boiler to be burned. Shoveling coal in the dark is not recommended.

  5. countrypaul Says:

    In New Rochelle, the apartment building I lived in until I was 5 burned coal for heat. I assume they changed many years ago although the building, now about 100 years old, us still there and quite nice, too. Coal trucks came in and off-loaded their cargo into a chute. The superintendent used to shovel it by hand! The building probably had 40 or so units, so it must have been a lot of work for the super!

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