Archive for the ‘Defunct department stores’ Category

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.

Demorestmagazine

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]

Christmas shopping in New York 100 years ago

December 1, 2014

True, the streets don’t look as festive, and store facades aren’t as decked out as they are today (where are all the usual wreaths and tinsel?).

But in terms of the crowds, the vendors, and all the kids captivated by toy displays, holiday shopping in New York City hasn’t really changed much in the past century, as these photos from abut 1910 reveal.

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Then and now, there’s lots of action at the fancy, exclusive department stores, such as the old B. Altman building on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (above).

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Street peddlers put out their wares on the sidewalk, just as they do today (above, selling stuffed toys on Sixth Avenue).

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Kids were drawn to toys, naturally. This audience of little ones seems quite taken with the doll and furniture display at the shop above.

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I have no idea what this gadget is, but I wonder if this vendor managed to unload it on any of these boys.

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Even in an age without web shopping and next-day delivery, Christmas delivery truck drivers were still kept very busy.

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And of course, fake-bearded Santas stood at their posts on Midtown streets, soliciting change for charity. This Kris Kringle is raising money for holiday dinners for the needy.

[Photos:  The George Bain Collection of the Library of Congress]

A 34th Street renovation reveals a 1902 facade

October 18, 2014

Since 1985, the elegant limestone building at the southwest corner of Sixth Avenue and 34th Street—originally the Herald Square home of Saks—has been sheathed behind ugly blue mirrored glass.

Saks34thstreet1920s

The store had a long history as Saks 34th Street; in the 1960s it became a Korvette’s and was most recently occupied by Daffy’s.

But during its current renovation into a new branch of retailer H&M,the lovely old department store came back into view.

A sharp-eyed Ephemeral reader noticed that some of the blue glass panels had been removed. There, a sliver of the facade finally got a chance to breathe and reveal itself to Herald Square.

Saks34thstreet2014

Those windows look like they need a good scrubbing—that’s more than 80 years of 34th Street exhaust and grime up there! But it’s wonderful to see them in any condition after all this time hidden away.

[Thanks to Jeffrey P. for the “palimpsest moment” and photos.]

Lovely, empty skybridges linking city buildings

June 21, 2014

They’ve been part of New York City since the 19th century: short, enclosed bridges that look like railway cars (and could make for pretty cool little apartments) connecting one building to another.

Functional yet decorative, these skybridges still exist all over the city—many in unusual corners and alleys.

Skybridgestaplestreet

One of the loveliest is this skywalk in Tribeca. Built in 1907, it linked New York Hospital’s House of Relief (such a wonderful name for a medical facility), at the corner of Hudson and Jay Streets, to a new hospital annex across Staple Street, then an industrial alley.

The annex housed a stable and laundry facility; you can imagine early 20th century nurses carting sheets and gowns and blankets back and forth across the skybridge day after day.

Skybridgechelseamarket

The transverse in Chelsea near Tenth Avenue has cathedral-like windows that let in lots of light.

Since 1930, it has connected the former Nabisco factory (today’s Chelsea Market, where the Oreo was invented!) to a former Nabisco office building.

Skybridgemetrolifetower

This gem on 24th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, bridging the Metropolitan Life Tower to the MetLife North building (no longer occupied by MetLife, though), has a graceful arch and appropriate Art Deco touches.

It almost looks like an old-school diner in the air.

Skybridgegimbels

Perhaps the most striking of all is the copper skybridge at the former Gimbels building on 32nd Street. Constructed in 1925, it actually resembles a bridge; it linked the main Gimbels department store to a new annex across the street and three stories into the sky.

The Bowery Boys recently posted a fascinating and rare glimpse inside this mostly abandoned walkway over Herald Square. Gimbels is long gone, but the transverse remains, and the photos are ghostly.

[Bottom photo: Wikipedia]

An “arcade railway” never built below Broadway

June 12, 2014

Traffic in New York—it’s always been terrible.

But in the years following the Civil War, when mass transit consisted of stages and horse cars (steam engine-powered elevated trains were just getting their start), much hand-wringing went into figuring out how to relieve the growing city’s “continual state of deadlock.”

Arcaderailway1868

The answer, according to some officials? Something called the Arcade Railway.

As the colorful lithograph shows, the rail line would run underground beneath Broadway, with branches fanning out east and west at 23rd Street to the northern end of Manhattan.

Broadway Arcade Railway, 1884 New York Transit Museum

It was “not merely to tunnel under the street, but to remove the street itself block by block, wall to wall, and construct another street at the depth of fifteen feet, supporting the present street level on arches, and making stores in what are now the basements and sub-basements of buildings,” explained an 1867 article in Scientific American.

The idea, which appeared about the time one engineer was secretly building a short-lived pneumatic tube subway under the same stretch of Broadway, had political support.

Arcaderailway1886

But businessmen, especially department store king A.T. Stewart, who had two massive emporiums on Broadway at the time, feared it would kill sales.

The plan circulated for a couple of decades—getting shot down by city lawmakers five times from 1870 to 1889 (above, a slightly modified version from 1886, from the NYPL Digital Collection).

By 1891, city officials and private businessmen embarked on a more wide-reaching, ambitious plan: the creation of a citywide, privately funded subway—which opened 110 years ago as the IRT.

The Arcade Railway is just one of many ill-conceived mass transit-related ideas that didn’t materialize, like these bridges never built.

Art Nouveau beauty on a Fifth Avenue building

April 24, 2014

Baltmanfifthaveentrance3In 1906, distinguished fine goods store B. Altman & Company opened this Italian Renaissance palazzo–inspired store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

The new store helped transform “middle” Fifth Avenue from an elegant street of small shops and mansions to a commercial boulevard fronted by several department stores.

 B. Altman went out of business in 1989. Yet the lovely flagship building still stands, taken over by CUNY’s Graduate Center.

BAltmanfifthaveentrance2

The Fifth Avenue facade is stunning: the columns, the bays, and especially the “curving, Art Nouveau style metal and glass canopy, supported by elaborate wrought-metal brackets” above each entrance, in the words of the CUNY Graduate Center website.

Baltmanfifthaveentrance4These ornate entrances are essentially unchanged. “The B. Altman & Company building remains an exemplar of American neo-Renaissance commercial design, and a landmark in the cultural history of New York,” the CUNY site notes.

It’s a little slice of old New York beauty amid the express buses and Empire State Building crowds and throngs of shoppers.

A little girl’s diary sheds light on the 1849 city

January 9, 2014

“I am ten years old to-day, and I am going to begin to keep a diary,” wrote Catherine Elizabeth Havens on August 6, 1849.

CatherinehavensandfatherCatherine only kept her diary for a year. But lucky for us, as an adult, she had the foresight to publish it in 1919.

Now, future generations can peek into what day-to-day city life was like for kids in the mid-19th century.

Well-off kids, that is. The daughter of a businessman (with her father at right), she first lived on exclusive Lafayette Place, then in Brooklyn, where she tells us her brother “liked to go crabbing.”

Her family finally settled on Ninth Street near Fifth Avenue. “It is a beautiful house and has glass sliding doors with birds of Paradise sitting on palm trees painted on them. And back of our dining room is a piazza, and a grape vine, and we have lots of Isabella grapes every fall.”

CatherinediaryexcerptThe city is getting too built up, she writes. “I walk some mornings with my nurse before breakfast from our house in Ninth Street up Fifth Avenue to Twenty-Third Street, and down Broadway home.

“An officer stands in front of the House of Refuge on Madison Square, ready to arrest bad people, and he looks as if he would like to find some.”

Catherine goes to a girls’ school; she likes piano lessons but dislikes history. Her family occasionally attends the “brick church” on Beekman Place and Nassau Street (below). She and her school friends raise $300 to help victims of the Irish potato famine.

Like all super-aware city kids, she knows all the leading attractions. She visits Vauxhall Gardens, mentions a wax figure at Barnum’s Museum, and remembers how moved her father was when he saw Jenny Lind sing at Castle Garden.

Spanglerhouse14thstreet

She gets cream puffs from Waldick’s Bakery on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street and chocolate on Broadway and Ninth Street. “Down Broadway, below Eighth Street is Dean’s candy store, and they have molasses candy that is the best in the city.”

CatherinediarymarblecemeteryShe tells us about the sounds of old New York. “Stages run through Bleecker Street and Eighth Street and Ninth Street right past our house, and it puts me right to sleep when I come home from the country to hear them rumble along over the cobblestones again.”

Catherine shops A.T. Stewart’s store on Chambers Street and likes Arnold and Constable on Canal Street, where “they keep elegant silks and satins and velvets, and my mother always goes there to get her best things.”

CatherinediarybrickchurchAnd she loves playtime in the park. “I roll my hoop and jump the rope in the afternoon, sometimes in the Parade Ground on Washington Square, and sometimes in Union Square.”

 The adult Catherine dedicated her published diary to her nieces and nephews, so perhaps she had no children of her own. I would love to know what happened to this thoughtful, literate girl, whose words give us a wonderful window into the pre-Civil War city.

[Third image: The Spangler Farmhouse, once on 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue and included in the published version of Catherine’s diary]

Addresses carved into Lower East Side corners

January 2, 2014

These old-school street name carvings pop up in the city’s tenement districts—and few neighborhoods have as high a concentration of tenements as the Lower East Side and East Village.

Avenuecaddresscarving

Avenue C above Houston Street was rebranded the East Village in the 1960s. But this red-brick residence with the graffiti tag on the upper left has the vibe of the LES.

Orchardhestercornersign

Above, turn-of-the-century Public School 42 notes its address: on the corner of Hester and Orchard Streets.

Interestingly, this is now known as the Benjamin Altman school, after the department store founder, the son of German immigrants who opened his first dry-goods store on nearby Attorney Street.

Divisonandpikesign

Division and Pike Streets are firmly in Lower East Side territory. Thanks to Ephemeral reader Iman for the great snap!

A peek into the backstory of 25 Park Place

July 22, 2013

Wonderful old signage is back in view downtown at 25 Park Place, an 1856 loft building in that Tribeca-City Hall area that was the center of the city’s dry-goods district in the 19th century.

Herculesseatingcosign

Aren’t those great rusty, weathered letters over the entrance? The Hercules Seating Company occupied the site from the 1930s at least into the early 1960s.

25Parkplacedailynews1920s

Like most New York City commercial buildings, 25 Park Place has cycled through lots of diverse tenants, each a reflection of the changing face of the neighborhood.

Built for a dry-goods firm called Lathrop, Ludington & Co., 25 Park Place hosted different businesses since then, among them a German book publishing company, a bank, a pool hall, a boxing gym, and a women’s clothing store, according to a 2007 Landmarks Committee Report.

Its last commercial incarnation was as an Off Track Betting Parlor, which had a sign that left the Hercules signage covered up for decades.

Herculesseatingcocloseup

In the 1920s, 25 Park Place had a noteworthy tenant: the New York Daily Newsaccording to the report and the accompanying photo at left.


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