The Automat is gone—but a faded Automat ad still remains in the Garment District

The last Horn & Hardart Automat in New York City, at 200 East 42nd Street, shut down in 1991—its stainless steel vending machines that dispensed everything from hot coffee to meatloaf to pie unceremoniously carted away.

That was 31 years ago. But the ghosts of the 40 to 50 Automats that once fed Gotham still haunt the imaginations of New Yorkers old enough to remember them—as well as those of us who wish we could hop into a time machine and experience these very democratic (and all architecturally different) food establishments.

Automat at 1089 Sixth Avenue, 1939

(Why democratic? Take it from a 1933 rhyme printed in the New York Sun that went like this: said the technocrat/to the plutocrat/to the autocrat/and the Democrat/let’s all go eat at the Automat!)

Macy’s own Automat at 425 Seventh Avenue, 1929

So it’s wonderful to come across a faded ad for a Broadway Automat on the side of a building on West 38th Street, within the borders of the Herald Square shopping district as well as the old Garment District.

This second image of the faded ad (above) comes from Frank Mastropolo, the author of Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York’s Past, which hits Amazon and bookstores today. Mastropolo got access to the roof of the building next door for this amazing shot, which fills in the blanks as to where this Automat was located.

The Automat at 401 Fifth Avenue, 1950s

The ad is in surprisingly good shape, considering it’s been exposed to the elements for four or five decades, at least. Let’s hope it sticks around!

[Second, third, and fifth images: NYPL Digital Collections; fourth image: Frank Mastropolo, Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York’s Past]

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31 Responses to “The Automat is gone—but a faded Automat ad still remains in the Garment District”

  1. fmlondon Says:

    The cars in the second from the upper photograph are too new for 1929. At least mid 1930s.

  2. Grace Says:

    I’m old enough to remember the automat – it was so fun!

  3. Will Says:

    My dad used to take me there when I was a kid. 🙂

  4. Carol Ann Siciliano Says:

    My mother was a designer whose early studio occupied a corner of her firm’s factory in the Garment District. I remember visiting there in the 1960s when I was a little girl. (It looked just like the factory in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel run by her former husband.) And I recall Mom taking us to a Horn & Hardart Automat. Thank you for helping me piece together old memories!

  5. burkemblog Says:

    Thanks! I went to that Automat in 1962 when I was 10 and on my way to England for three years–my dad, a Naval officer, was a New Yorker who wanted us to experience as much of the city as we could as we waited for everyone to arrive for the troopship we took. My wife and I went to the last of the Automats in the early 1980s, but I can’t remember where.

    Of course, who could forget Peter Schickele–PDQ Bach–“Concerto for Horn and Hardart”? https://youtu.be/NT6bxlnS1Is

  6. M. R. Says:

    Interestingly, the sign is on top of the site of the old Dubrow’s Cafeteria which was on 7th Ave. Between 35th and 36th Street.
    There’s an old Bickford’s facade on 6th Ave that was a McDonald’s for a while too.
    There were loads of restaurants catering to the garment center and most delivered to the showrooms.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Ah, I know that Bickford’s by the McDonalds. I’m not sure if it’s still there, but up until a few years ago the faded outline of the Bickford’s sign was still very visible.

  7. jtsteckle Says:

    It was a joyful experience. I was a little girl, but
    going there was like going to Disneyland before it
    was built. Such excitement!

  8. Joe R Says:

    There once was a Horn & Hardart on Broadway, up in the Theater District. I think it was also the first one in NYC.

  9. Rob Says:

    I remember going to an Automat during our trip to NYC in 1963..

  10. Carla Golden Says:

    This looks like an fun automat documentary…movie trailer at this link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4554690/

  11. Larry Feinberg Says:

    The Automat in that faded building sign would have been Horn and Hardart’s first NY restaurant (the company started in Philadelphia). Opened in 1912, it was located at 1557 Broadway, between 46th and 47th St. I have fond memories of the place, as I used to get together there around the holiday season with buddies from summer camp. Here is a link to a fascinating NY Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/30/realestate/streetscapes-1557-broadway-new-york-s-first-automat.html

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      The article you linked to has a lot of fascinating info about where some of the earliest Automats were located…I need to see if any exteriors are still standing today. Thank you!

  12. clyde vannatta Says:

    More of the endlessly fascinating history of NYC. Love your site.

  13. Carolyn Says:

    I remember seeing the final Automat on 42nd Street when I was a kid and being obsessed with it! When my dad told me that they used to be everywhere I couldn’t believe that they’d fallen out of fashion (at this point in my life I was probably also obsessed with the microphones at Burger King so, yes, my tastes were decidedly democratic.
    Another blast of the past in the mid 80s would be the Chock Full O’ Nuts on – was it 6th or 7th Ave.
    I wish we still had places like these.

    • velovixen Says:

      There were a number of Chock Full O’Nuts cafes all over the city. I remember my mother and I going to one in the Fulton Street shopping area of Brooklyn during my 1960s childh And I saw one in Jamaica, Queens in 2005.

      As for the Automats: My first memory of them is also from the 60s. My father had to work one Saturday. He took me and my brother to his workplace in the West 50s and to a nearby Automat for lunch. My uncle, who liked to take me to museums (which I liked), would treat me to lunch at whichever Automat was nearby. I agree that their baked beans were the best!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I vaguely recall Chock Full O’ Nuts from my NYC childhood, which led me to delve into the backstory of this much-missed coffee chain a few years ago:
      https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/tag/chock-full-onuts-new-york-stores/

  14. Tom Dulski Says:

    Wasn’t there one on St. Marks place maybe 10 years ago?

    • Buzz Says:

      There was a short-lived Automat enterprise called Bamn! on St. Marks in 2006. Judging from the pictures, it had none of the inherent elegance or charm of the Horn and Hardart Automats, and the menu seemed to be geared towards late-night cravings.

      (I have treasured memories of the Philadelphia Horn and Hardart Automat. Our grandmother used to take us there as a special treat. I used to order my version of haute cuisine: peanut butter on raisin bread, chocolate milk, and a chocolate-covered cupcake–all of it made even more delicious by virtue of the magical delivery system.)

  15. Mark Says:

    Remember seeing an early Warhol drawing reproduced in a book and finding the title strange- “Automat.” This clears things up. Quick search leads me to believe he did at least a few drawings of Automat patrons from the late 50’s.

  16. Chris F Says:

    My first full-time employer had their holiday party at the E42 site in very early ’80’s. Fascinating site; I don’t recall the machines working as the food was catered in.

  17. Bill Wolfe Says:

    Here’s the ultimate cinematic depiction of an automat, circa 1937, courtesy of Jean Arthur, Ray Milland, screenwriter Preston Sturges, and director Mitchell Leisen.

  18. Alexei Says:

    I went to the last 42nd Street Horn & Hardart a few times around 89-91 for coffee and pie just for the novelty, and as throw-back to the few times I went with my mom as a kid.

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