Archive for the ‘Beekman/Turtle Bay’ Category

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 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]

The factories of Queens sparking to life in 1910

May 18, 2020

Born in Dublin and educated in Paris, Aloysius C. O’Kelly was a turn of the century painter whose body of work reflects time spent in Europe, Ireland, and England.

But he spent time in New York, too, where he captured the congestion and manufacturing happening on the Queens side of the new Queensboro Bridge in “Tugboats in the East River, New York.”

“The East River, circa 1910, stands apart as one of O’Kelly’s few industrial New York landscapes,” writes Heritage Auctions, where the painting is up for sale.

“Shaping the composition is the dramatic cantilever Queensboro Bridge connecting Manhattan and Long Island, considered an engineering marvel at its completion in 1909. Here, the viewer looks north from the East River toward Queens, with its dense cluster of factories and warehouses sparking to life in the early morning haze.”

The unused, unlit taxi signs across Manhattan

May 11, 2020

Sometimes you come across one outside tony pre- and postwar apartment buildings (and some businesses): a small sign that says taxi, or just a lone light bulb under the awning or affixed to the facade.

It’s probably unlit when you see it, but illumination is the whole point.

At night, if a resident needed a taxi, a doorman could turn on the sign from inside. A cabbie looking for a fare would see the lighted sign from the street and drive over. (Below, on Sutton Place and East 57th Street)

In a city whose yellow taxi fleet has been squeezed by ride hailing apps (not to mention this year’s stay-at-home orders), the idea of relying on a sign to get a cab sounds old-timey.

But even in the two decades before Uber came along, I’d actually never seen one turned on. Did anyone ever use these taxi beacons? (On York Avenue, right)

The New York Times asked the question in 2003, and doormen at the time said no. “‘They just drive on by,'” one doorman in a building on 79th Street and York Avenue told reporter Rob Turner. ”’We only do it to make the residents happy.”’

The Times posed the question o Andrew Alpern, author of Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan: An Illustrated History.

“[Alpern] suggests that these urban fireflies date to the 1940’s, or more specifically World War II. As men went off to war, a dearth of doormen ensued,” the Times article explained.

”Without a doorman to hail the cab for you,” the article quotes Alpern, ”they may have started putting in these lights so that the elevator man could flip on the taxi light. And that would be the extent of his trying to get a cab for you.”

So maybe no one uses them. But even turned off, these taxi signs—some elegant and stylish, others built for functionality—are unique urban relics of another New York.

I’ve only seen one recently in front of a business: for Tavern on the Green on Central Park West (top image).

A 1929 luxury residence displays 2020’s best sign

April 13, 2020

When the luxury apartment building at 325 East 57th was completed in 1929, I wonder if any of the original tenants ever thought a handmade sign and two American flags would be hanging off the elegant canopy entrance.

But in the era of COVID-19, the people living in this building decided they had something to say. Think of it as the silent version of the nightly 7 p.m. cheer for all the New Yorkers working through the pandemic.

Ghost buildings standing out in the desolate city

April 13, 2020

There’s something about New York right now, with its (mostly) emptied streets and deserted sidewalks, that makes the phantom buildings of an earlier Gotham come out of hiding.

You know these phantom tenements and walkups—their faded outlines tend to reappear at construction sites, giving us a glimpse of the low-rise city of another era.

Sometimes they’re a longtime ghostly imprint overlooking the empty lot left behind when the building was torn down—like the one above on East 45th Street, with its distinctive chimney.

This one above, on Lafayette Street, is another unusual one, perhaps it’s the ghost of a Federal-style house from the first half of the 19th century, when many of these little homes were built (and still survive) in Lower Manhattan.

Here’s another stubby building at the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker, its chimney just visible against the lovely and much taller Bayard-Condict Building, constructed in 1899.

What will take the place of this low-rise walkup on York Avenue and 86th Street, old enough to have been dwarfed by century-old tenements?

This phantom building down at Hudson Yards might be gone by now. The building it left its outline on may have met the bulldozer, or a shiny new tower is obscuring it once again.

The slight slope to the top floor of this outline makes me think it was once a stylish brownstone or rowhouse, probably one in a group built in the late 19th century on a block in Midtown East.

Finally, on East 57th Street is this little guy, likely a 19th century apparition clinging to a more modern apartment building while haunting the bright busy Whole Foods at street level.

Let the Subway Inn’s neon sign inspire you

March 16, 2020

We’re in a challenging moment in New York history; how things will unfold in the coming weeks is uncertain.

So take a moment to behold the strange allure of the gorgeous neon sign outside the Subway Inn, at Second Avenue and 60th Street since 2014, and allow yourself a moment to feel inspired.

Yep, it’s the same sign the Subway Inn had when this old-school dive was located a few blocks west on 60th Street near Lexington, a site the bar had occupied since 1937. Here’s a flashback photo from 2012.

The most dazzling luxury apartment ads of 1935

February 24, 2020

It’s 1935, and you’re a New Yorker who needs a new apartment. The Depression is still raging, but your fortunes are on the upswing, and you’re thinking luxurious digs in Midtown or on the East or West Sides near Central Park.

Looks like you’ve got lots of options. The July 27, 1935 New Yorker (selling for 15 cents!) contains many classy apartment ads toward the back pages. These are the most amenity-packed ads for buildings that still exist and are still quite luxe.

The “most distinguished address in America” is quite a claim, but One Fifth Avenue beside the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park is still a beautiful building. This Art Deco gem was built in 1927.

I’m not sure the Parc Vendome of today still has a swimming pool. But it is an impressive fortress of a building fronting West 57th Street. (And the phone exchange: Circle for Columbus Circle?)

The El Dorado continues to shine on Central Park West, its two towers as impressive as other iconic West Side buildings like the Dakota and the San Remo.

Ten Park Avenue at 34th Street might not sound spectacular. But in the 1930s, this building maintained the hotel-style feel of many early apartment houses. Room service is available, and this one-bedroom pad is only $1300…per year, I believe.

“The trend is toward the river,” proclaims this ad for Southgate, a “fashionable colony” of five Bing & Bing buildings on East 51st and East 52nd Street designed by Emery Roth.

“Set apart from the rest of the town” for “smart New Yorkers”…I’m sold!

How old is this Manhattan laundry room sign?

January 27, 2020

If you’re lucky enough to have a basement laundry room in New York City, then you probably find yourself down there poking around as you wait for the final minutes of the spin cycle to finish up.

That’s how this old-school sign was discovered, hiding on the back of a basement utility door.

The building it was found in is a 12-story residence built in the 1920s. But how old is this sign? Considering the typeface and that “tenants” were replaced by “shareholders” at least 30 years ago), I’m guessing at least half a century.

The stunning old doors of a Turtle Bay townhouse

January 20, 2020

New York’s quiet residential streets draw their beauty from the rows of brownstones and townhouses that still have their original architectural detail.

But you don’t see too many original front doors on many of these otherwise well-preserved 19th century homes.

Which is why I often stop and tip my hat to the spectacular old front doors welcoming visitors to 335 East 50th Street, a townhouse in a row of slender stone-fronted houses that each have a single window on the top floor.

The two greenish doors that open at the top of the stoop at number 335 are elaborately carved and studded, decorated with floral motifs and matching lion-like heads that inspire awe rather than fear.

Are these really the original doors? I’m not 100 percent certain, as the date the house was built is still in question.

But a 1940 photo of the house—a tax photo from the New York City Department of Records and Information Services—reveals enough of the doors to make me think these are the same ones…meaning they are at least 80 years old, if not decades older.

And however old they are, they’re magnificent!

[Bottom photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]