Archive for the ‘Defunct department stores’ Category

One girl’s 1899 travel diary of New York City

January 16, 2017

On a January day, 12-year-old Naomi King and her parents left their Indiana home for a vacation in New York City.

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After arriving and meeting up with Naomi’s older sister Josie, a Manhattan resident, the family settled into the West 118th Street home of their host, a Mrs. Purdy.

naomicentralparkmallThrough early February they did what most first-time tourists do: they visited museums and Central Park (left), window-shopped stores, took in the Bowery, and saw the seashore at Coney Island.

What makes King’s visit so unique is that it occurred in January 1899.

And because King kept a travel diary (part of the Archives & Manuscripts Collection at the NYPL), contemporary readers get to experience the Gilded Age city as it appeared through her impressionable eyes.

naomicentralparkbandLike any trend-driven tween, King wrote about the clothes displayed in stores like Stern’s (top image) in the Ladies Mile shopping district.

“We got off [the Broadway car] at 23rd Street and Josie took us to the Stern Brothers, one of the large and select dry goods houses where we saw the latest fashions,” she wrote.

She saw “all the new spring styles [and] the new spring color: amethyst, purple, or violet in all shades [and] stripes extending to gentlemen’s cravats in Roman colors.”

naomizoo1895mcny93-1-1-18316The family strolled the mall in Central Park “under the arches of the beautiful trees whose branches interlaced overhead” and saw the bandstand (above) “where Sousa’s celebrated band plays all during the summer. . . . “

They were impressed by the lions (left) and hippos at the zoo. “Beside [the lions was] the royal Bengal tiger and his mate next to him in a separate cage, while a horrid hyena paced up and down his cage.”

King and her parents gawked at the mansions of Fifth Avenue. “We passed Mr. Cornelius Vanderbilt’s mansion, Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt’s elegant residence (below right). . . . “

naomiwkvanderbiltmansion“A little farther on we saw old Mr. Vanderbilt’s residence and a wealthy gentleman Mr. Rockefeller whose mansion is even finer than the Vanderbilts.'”

For reasons that aren’t clear, the family visited some of the city’s notorious charitable institutions, which King wrote about movingly.

On Randall’s Island at the House of Refuge (below), kind of a 19th century reform school, she saw boys working in the institution’s laundry department.

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“We passed however a large hall of locked cells which the larger boys sleep,” she wrote. “They lock them up to prevent making their escape.”

Also on Randall’s Island, she was distraught by a hospital for abandoned babies—a terrible problem in the post–Civil War city.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcover“We . . . went to the baby residence, the home of the little waifs who were picked up out of the city’s ash barrels and dark alleyways. They looked so frail in their white  cot beds. . . . There are so many babies and yet not one little face that looked like another.”

What became of King after her visit I wish I knew.

But her travel diary stands as a testament to the wonder and tragedy of New York on the cusp of the 20th century.

The Gilded Age in New York includes these excerpts from King’s diary—as well as diary excerpts from other New Yorkers of the era. Many thanks to the NYPL for permission to cite the text in the book.

[Top three photos: NYPL Digital Collection; fourth photo, MCNY: 93.1.1.18316; sixth photo, MCNY: 91.69.1811915]

A cast-iron jewel sits behind this glass facade

December 19, 2016

tiffanys2016If only we could peel back the black reflective glass obscuring 15 West 15th Street and knock off some of the coffin-shaped boxes from the upper floors.

Because underneath what looks like another modern commercial building is the skeleton of Tiffany & Co.’s 1870 headquarters, a spectacular cast-iron building designed for New York’s legendary “palace of jewels” (below).

This is where the famed jeweler relocated after starting out on Broadway across from City Hall in 1837 before moving to Broadway and Prince Street in the mid-19th century.

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“To call John Kellum’s design for the 5-story building ornate would be an understatement; its decorative columns, cornices, and other projections attempted to render in cast iron a symbol of the ‘palace of jewels’ inside,” wrote John Hill in Guide to Contemporary New York Architecture.

tiffanysunionsquarenewstore1870nyplUnion Square was an ideal spot for the new Tiffany’s.

After the Civil War, Ladies Mile, New York’s premium shopping district, moved to the fashionable stretch between 9th Street and 23rd Street along Broadway.

Tiffany’s wanted to be part of the action. On Union Square East, the store occupied prime real estate betwen the best dry goods emporiums of the day, like Lord & Taylor, which also relocated “uptown” in 1870, to 20th Street.

Throughout the Gilded Age, Tiffany’s dazzled New Yorkers with its jewelry collection and what the New York Times in 1873 called its “spacious galleries” of home furnishings and objects of art.

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Imagine the store during holiday time in the late 19th century, with well-heeled wives perusing the display counters for gifts of gold and diamonds (above) . . . and thieves looking for a way to break in and rob the place, which happened all too often, according to newspaper accounts.

tiffanys1899nyplTiffany’s stuck around Union Square until the 1900s before following other retailers to a new midtown spot at Fifth Avenue and 37th Street in 1905. In 1940, it moved to its present address up the avenue at 57th Street.

So how did the Union Square store end up swathed in black, as if it’s in mourning?

Amalgamated Bank took over the building in the early 1900s, then stripped it of its ornamental loveliness (a safety precaution, as a chunk fell off and killed a pedestrian) in the 1950s.

tiffanyfacade1953-1954mcny54-37-18For five decades the featureless, white-brick building (right) housed various tenants. In the 2000s, it was redone as a pricey apartment residence.

The architects for the new residence removed the white brick. “With the brick and [much of the] cast iron gone, the new zinc-framed glass walls sit two feet in front of the remaining 1870 cast iron structure,” wrote Hill.

Apparently at night, if you look closely, you can see the original arched windows—a ghostly remnant of one of the city’s most famous emporiums.

[Second photo: MCNY, 1885, x2010.11.3352; third photo: NYPL, 1870; third image: NYPL, undated; fourth photo: NYPL, 1899; fifth photo: MCNY, 1953, 54.37.18]

Christmas sidewalk vendors of Sixth Avenue

December 5, 2016

Sixth Avenue along Ladies Mile was a prime shopping district during the 1902 holiday season, with enormous emporiums like Siegel Cooper, Hugh O’Neill, and Macy’s offering Christmas windows, in-store Santas, and deals galore.

A smart vendor could make some cash selling his wares there, as this tree or wreath vendor appears to be doing.

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Hey, isn’t that the house of worship once known as the Limelight? These New Yorkers would have called it the Church of the Holy Communion.

Christmas shopping is pretty much the same as it was 100 years ago, as these additional photos reveal.

Discount store Korvettes lives on in the subway

August 8, 2016

Remember the faded and forgotten Gimbels sign inside the 33rd Street PATH station? Turns out another relic of New York’s department store past is hidden away there as well.

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Inside a closed-off construction area along a walkway connecting the PATH to the Herald Square subway station is this sign for the underground entrance to Korvettes.

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What was Korvettes? New Yorkers who lived in the metro area anytime between the 1950s and the early 1980s know: it was a popular discount retailer with several locations in the city, including one at Sixth Avenue and 34th Street (top photo).

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Korvettes went bust in 1980—but this Reagan-era sign was never taken down, even as new retailers moved into its former site, now called the Herald Center.

saks34thstreet1920sThe Herald Center has quite a retailing history. Before Korvettes moved there in the 1960s and the building was sheathed behind a Brutalist facade, it was a lovely Beaux-Arts building constructed in 1902 for Saks’s Herald Square store (left).

(Part of the old Saks facade came back into view last year during construction—a sweet site to behold.)

Korvettes had a strong run—I’d put it above Crazy Eddie but below its Herald Square neighbors like Gimbels and Abraham & Straus in the rankings of defunct city department stores.

This 1970s TV commercial will take you back to the days when Korvettes was big. Thanks to ENY reader B.R. for alerting me to the sign!

[Top photo: John J. Meola/Wikipedia; second photo: Alamy; third photo: Getty Images; fifth image: Staten Island Advance, 1971]

The lost Gimbels sign in a Midtown train station

June 30, 2016

Gimbelscloseup2016It’s not easy to see against the grimy tile wall.

Yet as you exit the PATH station beneath 33rd Street, you can just make out the letters G, L, and S.

It’s one of the last reminders of the Gimbels store, which for 76 years occupied its Herald Square spot on Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street.

Gimbels, of course, was a retail giant during the city’s 20th century department store era.

Gimbels1920mcny

A little more downmarket than Macy’s across the street, the two behemoths had a fabled rivalry for decades until Gimbels gave up the ghost in 1986.

A major selling point for Gimbels were the underground passageways that took 34th Street subway and PATH riders right to the store’s entrances.

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Gimbels is long gone, but the building, extensively revamped, is still there—it’s now the Manhattan Mall with a JC Penney as its flagship store.

Gimbels1905-1914mcnyA few other remnants of Gimbels continue to haunt Midtown. A faded Gimbels ad on a building on West 31st Street should still be there.

And though it has no Gimbels signage, this enchanting copper skybridge linking an upper floor of the Gimbels store to an annex over 32nd Street is a lovely site.

Hat tip to the eagle-eyed History Author Show!

[Images: MCNY]

The Gilded Age excess of Manhattan’s first mall

June 6, 2016

Did the modern shopping mall get its start thanks to this Beaux Arts beauty?

Well, maybe. This pioneering temple of commerce stood at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street for just a decade, from 1901 to 1911.

Windsorarcade1905

But what a building the Windsor Arcade was, a three-story gem that epitomized Gilded Age excess, from the sculptures and columns decorating the facade to the carriage drive leading to the center courtyard to the ornate details inside its shops.

Windsorarcade19052An arcade was a place that contained several stores, and the Windsor Arcade is thought to be the first modern-style shopping mall in New York City, writes Marcia Reiss in Lost New York.

“Considered one of the most beautiful retail buildings ever constructed in the city, it was modeled on the enclosed streets of small shops in London and Paris,” states Reiss.

The Windsor was “the only modern arcade in the city; this enterprise is not a department store but a gathering together under one roof of leading retail merchants in their respective lines,” according to one magazine in 1907.

Windsorhotel1898Among the stores inside were Steinway & Sons Pianos, art galleries, a milliner, china and glass sellers, and a photo portrait studio—all catering to the city’s well-off, who took part in the relatively new indulgence of shopping for fun and pleasure.

For such an ostentatious commercial venture, however, the Windsor Arcade has a tragic past.

It rose from the ashes of the Windsor Hotel (above left, in 1898), the site of a horrific fire on March 17, 1899 that killed dozens of people, many who had gathered in front of the opulent hotel to watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Windsorarcade1902

By 1911, the city’s first mall was on its way out, replaced by office buildings by the 1920s.

The owner had only put up the arcade as kind of a place holder until he had a more profitable use for the property, which happened to be in a very fashionable stretch of the city.

[Top photo: 1905, MCNY; second photo: 1905, MCNY; third photo: Windsor Hotel, 1898, MCNY; fourth photo: 1902, MCNY]

When S. Klein’s store dominated Union Square

March 14, 2016

A few weeks ago, a post of a 1970s-era photo of Mays discount department store on 14th Street at Union Square brought in many comments about the old S. Klein store that once stood across the street.

S.Klein

Here’s an old postcard of the store and 14th Street looking east, occupying the space where Zeckendorf Towers and the Food Emporium are today.

Wow, look at the Third and Second Avenue Elevated train lines in the distance!

A desperate Mrs. Lincoln visits New York in 1867

March 14, 2016

Marylincolnmathewbrady1861On September 17, 1867, a woman checked into a room in the posh St. Denis Hotel (below) on Broadway and 11th Street.

Her reservation was made under the name Mrs. Clarke. But with her real name written on her luggage, she was quickly recognized as presidential widow Mary Todd Lincoln.

This was hardly Mrs. Lincoln’s first trip to the city. After her husband was elected in 1860, she was a frequent visitor to New York.

Her trips weren’t about politics, however. She was mainly in Gotham to shop the city’s many expensive stores—like A. T. Stewart, Lord and Taylor, and Tiffany & Co.

MarylincolnstdenishotelMrs. Lincoln was what today would be called a shopaholic. Perhaps she bought so many things to dull the pain after her 11-year-old son Willie died in 1862. Or maybe she felt that the president’s wife had to look her best at all times.

“I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity,” Mrs. Lincoln told her seamstress and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley, during her husband’s 1864 reelection campaign.

Her extravagant spending was what brought her back to New York in 1867. She had fallen deeply in debt since her husband was assassinated two years earlier and she was forced to leave the White House for Chicago.

The struggling Mrs. Lincoln had the idea to sell some of her wardrobe items and jewelry, hoping it would ease her troubles.

MarylincolnkeckleyKeckley (left) arrived in New York the next day to assist Mrs. Lincoln with the sale. The two women moved to the Union Place Hotel, because the St. Denis would not allow Keckley, who was African-American, to stay on the same floor as her friend.

They went to a diamond broker first, and then “Elizabeth and Mary invited second-hand clothing dealers to their hotel to inspect Mary’s wardrobe for sale,” wrote Catherine Clinton for the New York State Archives Partnership Trust.

“Both women then prowled shops on Seventh Avenue, hoping to trade old clothes for new greenbacks.” But “gossip began to circulate about this mystery woman wrapped in widow’s weeds who was peddling her wardrobe.”

After the diamond broker betrayed her trust by having her letters published in the New York World, the press savaged her “old clothes sale” (though the New York Times also felt that family members of former presidents should be better provided for).

MarylincolnstdenistodayPublic opinion was against her. Even worse, her items drummed up no interest. She fled back to Chicago to her rented rooms.

Her financial situation continued to fall apart, as did her mind. She was committed to an Illinois asylum in 1875 but made periodic trips to New York to address her health before dying in 1882.

[The St. Denis Hotel today, which was on the route President Lincoln’s funeral procession took through New York in April 1865]

What a photo of 1970s Union Square reveals

February 15, 2016

Is this really the south side of Union Square a mere 40 years ago? Instead of Whole Foods and glass condos, it’s a crumbling stretch of discount stores.

Mays

This photo couldn’t be older than 1979; that was the year Sugar Babies debuted on Broadway. The bus ad for this musical references “Fun City,” a slogan dating back to Mayor Lindsay’s terms in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mays, a big box cheapo department store, occupied the enormous space between University Place and Broadway. Except for a couple of Woolworth stores on opposing ends of 14th Street, they didn’t have much competition.

One thing has stayed the same: the 14th Street crosstown bus continues to lumber along.

Here’s another view of Union Square in the 1970s—and the 19th century.

An 1860s fashion accessory for New York ladies

March 9, 2015

Demorestsbriscoecenterforamericanhistory1877Even with the Civil War going on, New York City in the 1860s was a stylish metropolis.

Well-off women (and there were many, thanks in part to money pouring in from wartime industry) decked themselves out in “carriage cloaks of moire and amber velvet, to sable or mink furs, and to gowns of organdy, grenadine, and brocade silks in deep and brilliant magenta, gold, or fuchsia,” wrote Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

The hoop skirt was the most fashion-forward style. But with a hemline that brushed the ground, it was tricky to wear in New York City, which at the time consisted of muddy, manure-filled streets and iffy trash and snow removal services.

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That’s where a woman famously known as Madame Demorest comes in.

The American-born head of her own fashion empire, she invented something called the “Imperial Dress Elevator” that was made of a series of weighted strings, so a woman could discreetly raise and lower her hoop skirt to avoid dirtying up the hemline as she strolled past filthy gutters and curbs.

Dresselevatorad

“The dress elevator was so popular that ‘Imperial’ became the code name for any device that raised a skirt,” wrote Anne Macdonald in Feminine Ingenuity.

Madamedemorestnypl“When women asked each other, ‘are you wearing your imperial today?’ they knew what they meant.”

Madame Demorest’s (at left) fashion empire was vast: she ran an emporium on Broadway, invented a sewing machine, sold inexpensive dress patterns that copies the styles of the day, and put out a magazine that was enormously popular through the 19th century.

Mostly forgotten today, she paved the way for women in fashion and business in the 20th century.

[Photos: Top, Briscoe Center for American History; bottom: NYPL Digital Gallery]