Archive for the ‘Defunct department stores’ Category

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.

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.

Bainchristmaswindowshoppers2

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).

Bainchristmastoyvendor6thave

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

Bainchristmastoys

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

Bainchristmaspeddler1910

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

Bainchristmaspackages2

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

Bainchristmassanta

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.


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