Archive for the ‘Chelsea’ Category

This woman made Macy’s a Gilded Age success

July 1, 2019

Macy’s—the retail giant that got its shaky start at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street (below right) in 1858—takes credit for a lot of firsts.

This dry goods emporium was the first to offer set prices for each item (in other words, no haggling), a money-back guarantee, and a store Santa starting with the 1862 holiday season.

But the retailer that eventually operated 11 shops across 14th Street in the Ladies Mile shopping district before decamping for Herald Square in 1902 can also claim another first.

Macy’s was the first store, or perhaps the first business in New York at all, to employ a female executive.

Having an astute woman leading a company that largely marketed itself to women may have been the secret that helped make Macy’s the retail giant it still is today.

Born in 1841, Margaret Getchell (above) was a former schoolteacher from Nantucket who moved to New York City at the age of 20. She applied for an entry-level job as a Macy’s clerk.

[Some accounts have it that Getchell was a distant relation of Rowland H. Macy, the store founder; but it’s unclear if this was actually true.]

“[Getchell] was an incredibly hard-working employee and, aside from her quick calculations as a cashier, she would often stay late at night to help with the company bookkeeping,” states The Folding Chair, a women’s history website. “Macy decided to promote her to the store’s bookkeeper.”

Soon, Getchell wasn’t just keeping track of the books and training new “cash girls,” as the shopgirls were called. She was recommending trends to Macy that he should capitalize on.

“At the end of the Civil War, Margaret suggested the addition of military-inspired fashion. She also began to spot budding trends in gifts, jewelry, clocks, homeware and cooking equipment,” The Folding Chair explains.

“These suggestions, as they began to materialize in the shop, transformed Macy’s into the first modern department store in America.”

By 1867, after pioneering an in-store soda fountain and window displays with cats dressed in baby clothes, Getchell, 26, was promoted to store superintendent.

She married another Macy’s employee, and the two lived above one of the stores, according to Macy’s for Sale.

As consumerism exploded in the Gilded Age, Macy’s became one of New York’s leading new department stores.

Getchell, sadly, didn’t live to see the store make its historic leap to Herald Square at the beginning of the 20th century.

Two years after her husband died of tuberculosis in 1878, Getchell succumbed to heart failure and inflammation of the ovary.

Her business motto, however, still applies to retail today: “Be everywhere, do everything, and never fail to astonish the customer.”

[Top photo: The Folding Chair; second photo: Bettman/Corbis; third photo: Postcards From Old New York/Facebook; fourth photo: Alice Austen; fifth photo: The Folding Chair]

A 1910 packing plant subsumed by Hudson Yards

April 1, 2019

For more than a century, the two-story building at 527-531 West 36th Street held its own with its neighbors in this once-industrial part of Manhattan—away from more traditional retail stores and apartment buildings in the far west 30s.

It’s an unusual survivor that looks a lot older than records reveal.

Apparently constructed by 1910 (though one 1902 newspaper article said it was supposed to have five stories), the brick building has large arched windows and ornamental trim on the second floor.

One of its earliest occupants was a fruit packing plant; another business was Rohe and Brothers, a wholesale beef and pork provisions company.

It makes sense that Rohe operated here; West 36th Street is three blocks from what used to be known as Abattoir Place because of all the slaughterhouses that turned cattle brought to the West Side via rail or ferry into beef.

A milk distributor and pasteurization company operated here in the 1940s. Soon the food packers and distributors were replaced by auto body businesses, like Steven and Francine’s, whose sign hangs on the building’s boarded-up second floor.

Recently, this humble holdout in the shadow of Hudson Yards’ steel and glass luxury towers was sold to Tishman Speyer for $20 million. The real estate developer plans to turn the site into a park in exchange for air rights for another office tower going up next door.

It’s one of the last remaining vestiges of the far west 30s (at the recently named “Hudson Boulevard”) on the fringes of Manhattan. But it won’t be here much longer.

[Second image: 1940 Tax Photo NYC Department of Records]

The 1877 “palace of trade” opens on Ladies Mile

March 25, 2019

Ask old-school New Yorkers where B. Altman & Company used to be, and they’ll sigh before telling you it was on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

That palazzo-inspired building, home to the luxury department store from 1906 until its bankruptcy in 1990. still stands.

But so does the magnificent, block-long, cast-iron “palace of trade” Benjamin Altman opened in 1877 in stages at 615-629 Sixth Avenue. (Above and below right)

That’s the year when this “merchant prince” outgrew his first dry goods store on East 10th Street and Third Avenue and joined the growing number of retailers occupying spectacular buildings on Ladies Mile, the Gilded Age’s shopping district.

Altman was something of an unusual character among the other major store owners of the time.

His parents immigrated to the Lower East Side from Bavaria in 1835, and he learned the dry goods trade by working at his family’s modest store on Attorney Street before launching his eponymous Third Avenue store.

Quiet and described as reclusive, Altman never married (though he did help raise and support his nieces and nephews).

He was a serious art enthusiast who donated his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the foundation he launched in 1913 just before his death continues to fund educational organizations.

Unlike other retail barons, Altman wasn’t a showman. It was his talent for merchandising and his understanding of the new consumerism that helped make his store so popular.

His innovations paved the way for the department store of today. Altman’s was the first to feature “designated areas for displaying clothing for customers of all ages, as well as a diverse variety of household items at fixed prices,” wrote Jeanne Abrams in a 2011 series on immigrant entrepreneurs.

“Altman made it a point to outdo his competitors in style and elegance, and the store featured an impressive central court, a glass-domed rotunda, mahogany woodwork, and carpeted elevators,” she explained.

“B. Altman & Company’s reputation for excellent service, reliability, and the latest in fashion, which included luxurious silks, velvets, and satins, many imported from France, made the store a favored shopping stop for affluent New Yorkers.”

Then there was the delivery service. Wealthy women weren’t expected to carry their own packages, so Altman pioneered home delivery with liveried drivers in maroon wagons working out of a stable (above) built at 135 West 18th Street.

He understood the needs of his elite customers so well that he provided a separate store entrance on West 18th Street (maybe this door at left?) for the most elite of them.

That way, they wouldn’t have to enter the store on Sixth Avenue and deal with the riffraff coming off the Sixth Avenue elevated, which had a stop on the corner.

Altman could also see the future—and it wasn’t on Ladies Mile. After Macy’s packed up and relocated to 34th Street in 1902, Altman followed suit.

More than 140 years later, his extravagant Sixth Avenue store serves as a Container Store, part of a shopping district very different from the fashion-heavy one that attracted throngs of well-heeled Gilded Age shoppers.

[Second image: Department Store Museum; Third image: Wikipedia; Fourth image: Manhattan Sideways; Sixth image, 1948: MCNY X2010.7.1.9378]

The last Tad’s Steaks is in the Theater District

March 4, 2019

New York boasts plenty of trendy, pricey steakhouses. But it’s been a long time since the city has had room for a cut-rate chophouse chain like Tad’s.

Old-timers remember Tad’s, those red and white steakhouses with a late 19th century kind of typeface on its neon signs. They used to occupy Gotham’s crowded, slightly seedy corners from the 1950s and 1990s. (Above, a Tad’s once in Chelsea)

Times Square had a few (at left); one stood at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street too.

I recall another on East 14th Street just east of Union Square, which I think limped along after the Palladium closed and finally became a pizza parlor in the 1990s.

Now, only one Tad’s remains. It’s in the Theater District on Seventh Avenue and 50th Street (below).

The setup is basically the same as it was in 1957, when a North Dakota native named Donald Townsend opened the first Tad’s. He charged $1.09 for a broiled T-bone, baked potato, salad, and garlic bread, recalled the New York Times in 2000 in Townsend’s obituary.

“Little matter that the meat might be cardboard thin, with clumps of fat and sinew,” stated the Times. “For a tenth the price of a fancy steak dinner, a working man could watch his hunk of steer searing under leaping, hissing flames in Tad’s front window—’a steak show” in Mr. Townsend’s memorable phrase.

That broiled steak dinner now runs $9.09. But the cafeteria-style meal is still a bargain if you’re looking for an old-school New York experience or miss the city’s once ubiquitous mini-franchises, like Chock Full O’ Nuts or Schrafft’s.

[Top photo: Renee J. Tracy/Foursquare; second photo: Noiryork.net]

A Christmas card from a defunct Ladies Mile store

December 24, 2018

Hugh O’Neill was an Irish-born retailer who eventually ran one of the biggest dry goods emporiums on Sixth Avenue at 21st Street.

His was the impressive domed building in the district once known as Ladies Mile, a late 19th century enclave of fancy emporiums and more middle class department stores roughly between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th to 23rd Streets.

Like any smart store owner, O’Neill happily celebrated the consumerism that took hold in late 19th century New York, and this card gets his sentiments across in a cheeky way.

The O’Neill store is now a high-end condo called The O’Neill Building—apparently some lucky owners get to live in those corner domes!

The well-dressed Christmas shoppers of 1910

November 26, 2018

We don’t know their names. But judging by their elaborate hats, tailored coats, and that thick fur muff one is holding, these two Christmas shoppers are part of the upper crust in New York’s turn of the century city.

News photographer snapped the photo sometime between 1910 and 1915. He was probably on or near Sixth Avenue, one end of the Gilded Age’s posh and stylish Ladies Mile shopping district.

There, Bain took other photos of holiday shoppers, Christmas tree vendors, and wide-eyed kids staring into toy store windows and dreaming.

Art Nouveau flower petals on a Chelsea factory

March 12, 2018

It’s not a factory anymore, of course—working-class Chelsea has long since bit the dust.

But outside the former Hellmuth printing ink building at 154 West 18th Street, the company name still decorates the entrances, with lovely Art Nouveau floral ornamentation in terra cotta above on beside the doorways.

It’s hard to imagine a time when industrial businesses commissioned architects to build inspiring factories and work spaces.

And though the rest of the 8-story Hellmuth building may seem like a pretty typical loft building turned co-op, the two entrances on 18th Street near Seventh Avenue still inspire.

Art Nouveau’s naturalism and curvy lines didn’t take hold in New York the way it did in other major cities in the early 20th century.

But this design style can be found in small pockets of the city, like this Park Row building and this low-rise holdout on a Midtown corner.

[Third photo: Condo.com]

The dreams of the pigeon trainer on a city roof

February 26, 2018

Raising pigeons on tenement roofs doesn’t seem to be a popular thing in contemporary New York. But years ago it was a not-uncommon hobby, and John Sloan makes it the subject of this painting—done from his West 23rd Street studio in 1910.

Sloan loved watching what transpired on rooftops. His roof paintings “convey a sense of the freedom and escape the roofs provided from the suffocating confines of New York tenement living,” states Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which has “Pigeons” in its collection.

“Here Sloan depicts the then popular pastime of raising pigeons, which were let loose daily to fly for exercise. Witnessed by their trainer and a young boy perched on the tenement wall, the birds circling above seem to give visual expression to the men’s dreams of a flight of fancy high above the city,” states the MFA.

Who is the man with the pen on 14th Street?

January 29, 2018

I’ve been curious about him since the 1990s—this sturdy man clad in a loose-fitting shirt sitting in a chair while holding what looks like a pen to a piece of paper.

His image is carved above the doorway of the five-story walkup residence at 210 West 14th Street.

Who is he? A writer I imagine, or an illustrator, or some other kind of artist.

Whatever he’s doing, he seems reflective and serious, engrossed in his work.

Did an artist or writer live and work here? A search of possibilities turns up something interesting.

From 1942 until his death in 1968, French-born painter, sculptor, and Dada pioneer Marcel Duchamp had a studio in this building on the top floor.

(In fact, “Duchamp” is still written on the buzzer outside the front door, a nice turn Duchamp would probably get a kick out of).

It’s one of many places Duchamp lived in the city after he first arrived in 1915. “It was here that, using found objects from his walks around the neighborhood, Duchamp secretly constructed ‘Etant Donnes,’ when the public had thought he’d given up art,” states art-nerd.com.

Is the man with the pen Duchamp? It seems unlikely, based on what Duchamp actually looked like.

The ground-floor commercial space doesn’t hold any clues. Various tenants leased the space over the years, most notably a Spanish food store called Casa Moneo from 1929 to 1988.

Casa Moneo was one of the last holdouts from when West 14th Street was the center of Manhattan’s “Little Spain” enclave.

The identity of the man and his significance at this address remains a mystery.

Weird things done to New York brownstones

December 18, 2017

Few things are as lovely as a row of brownstones—a solid line of stoops and cornices signifying harmony, community, and Gilded Age New York charm.

I’m using brownstone as an all-purpose word for a New York rowhouse. Brownstones themselves were kind of the McMansions of the late 19th century; every newly minted banker or merchant had to have one.

But while it’s the dream of many city residents to rent or own one of these beauties and have it restored to its 19th century grandeur, not everyone thinks so.

On some of the most fashionable brownstone blocks are strange architectural upgrades that would puzzle Gilded Age New Yorkers—like this one on East 51st Street (top photo), swathed in glass with what looks like a giant punch card over the facade.

Some brownstones still look the part—at least, the top half of the house does. This one in Flatiron has an ugly storefront addition covering the parlor and second floors.

On East 71st Street is a building I like to call the bubble brownstone. As far as I know, this is the only brownstone in the city with glass oval pods for windows.

I don’t know what to make of this brickface former brownstone on West 18th Street except that it has a very 1970s feel.

It looks like a concrete grill or lattice is covering the entire front of this rowhouse on the Upper East Side. I wonder what kind of light comes in. It was designed by a Modernist architect in the 1950s.

Finally, here’s a brownstone that looks like it’s undergone the Brutalist treatment in Chelsea. Hey, at least the owner has his or her own garage.