Archive for the ‘Defunct department stores’ Category

The 1868 rowhouses built into Bloomingdale’s

May 13, 2019

Stand at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue and look up at the Art Deco main entrance of Bloomingdale’s.

As you take in the enormity of this low-rise, black and gray department store, you might think it consists of one uniform building extending all the way to Third Avenue.

But halfway down 60th Street, you’ll see a modern-day time capsule connecting the Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue ends of the store.

Here is a stretch of cream-colored rowhouses with fanciful details and the kind of mansard roofs that were all the rage in the Gilded Age city.

These rowhouses, once known as 162-170 East 60th Street, were built in 1868 and actually predate the Bloomingdale’s store by 18 years.

“The five buildings, a picturesque side-street surprise that has escaped demolition at least once, were developed as a tide of post-Civil-War rowhouses swept up the East Side,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1990.

The rowhouses “were probably like others on the street shown in later views: high-stooped brownstones in the Italianate style, three windows wide, with a low fourth floor under a modest mansard roof,” wrote Gray.

Bloomingdale’s acquired the rowhouses the way they acquired the land on the rest of the block from Third to Lexington Avenues and 59th to 60th Streets—in pieces in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the 1880s, three were turned into a store annex, and at some point they may also have served as a loading dock.

Today, these five former upscale residences sandwiched in the middle of Bloomingdale’s go unnoticed by most shoppers, even with the old “Bloomingdale Brothers” sign over the street-level windows.

[Second image: pdxhistory.com]

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]

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 “Big Store” blows away 1890s New York

June 5, 2017

You could say that Gilded Age New York perfected the idea of the department store—a multi-floor, massive commercial space designed to dazzle consumers with sumptuous windows and fashionable displays and put the latest must-have goods within reach of the growing middle-class.

But even New Yorkers who shopped (or at least window-shopped) emporiums like Lord & Taylor, Arnold Constable, and Macy’s along Ladies Mile were blown away by the city’s first Siegel-Cooper store, which opened in September 1896.

Nicknamed “The Big Store” for, well, obvious reasons, Siegel-Cooper boasted 15 and a half acres of selling space inside a Beaux-Arts building on Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets.

More than 120 departments run by 3,000 employees offered everything from ladies’ fashions to a grocery store, dentist’s office, a pets department, several restaurants, and a bicycles department (this was the 1890s, after all, and wheelmen and wheelwomen had taken over the city).

The fountain in the center of the store gave rise to the phrase “meet me at the fountain”—which New York ladies did, in droves.

Women were the buyers for their families, after all, and the stores and restaurants of Ladies Mile were acceptable places for them to go when they were not in the company of men.

“The quintessential New York experience was to buy a five-cent ice-cream soda and sit beside the fountain, taking in the pageantry of fashionably attired women making their shopping rounds,” wrote Francis Morrone in Architectural Guidebook to New York City.

Steel-framed Siegel-Cooper was quite technologically advanced for its day. The tower over the marble-columned entrance bathed Sixth Avenue in electric light, and the basement had its own power station.

Siegel-Cooper even had its own exit on the 18th Street stop of the Sixth Avenue El. Shoppers could get off the train and walk into a second-floor entrance, without having to descend to the gritty street shadowed by train tracks.

New York in 1896 was just three years out of the Panic of 1893, which crippled the economy. But this was the Gilded Age, and ostentatious displays still appealed to consumers. Opening day, as you can imagine, was a madhouse.

“The crowds around the store half an hour before the opening time, 7:30 o’clock, numbered probably 5,000 men, women, boys, and girls, and they were for a little while interested in the unveiling of the show windows,” wrote the New York Times a day later, on September 13, 1896.

“When they had satisfied their curiosity, they found that 20,000 persons had joined them, and that they were hemmed in. . . . So great was the jam inside the store that few of the visitors saw anything, except the general details of the vast floors, beautiful floral trophies sent by friends and mercantile houses to the heads of departments, [and] the word ‘Welcome’ blazing in electric lights over the main aisle of the ground floor.”

The amazing thing about The Big Store is that it only dazzled New York a short time.

Less than 20 years later, Siegel-Cooper declared bankruptcy, and the building was converted into a military hospital during World War I.

After decades of use as a warehouse, among other functions, the Siegel-Cooper store was resurrected in the 1990s as a mini-mall anchored by Bed Bath & Beyond—one of the central businesses in a modernized Sixth Avenue shopping district.

Pieces of the old Siegel-Cooper legacy remain, however. The original imposing marble columns and lanterns flank the entrance.

And on the facade of what is now a Room & Board furniture store on 18th Street, you can see C-S insignias, as this building once served as the Siegel-Cooper’s wagon delivery storage space.

[Second photo: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: unknown; sixth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon; 2013.3.2.1799; seventh photo: Wiki]

The most spectacular roofs are in Union Square

April 10, 2017

On a walk around Union Square, it’s impossible not to look up, thanks to the number of gorgeous roofs—stacked, sloping, multi-tiered roofs that top off the Gilded Age buildings like the elaborate feathered hats worn by stylish women of the era.

The four-story mansard roof crowning 201 Park Avenue South is perhaps the most impressive. This gorgeous building—close to the heavily German East Village back in the day—was once the headquarters for the Germania Life Insurance Company, built in fashionable French Renaissance style in 1911.

On the north side of the square at 33 East 17th Street is the Century Building, with it Queen Anne bells and whistles and two-story gambrel roof. Opened in 1881, the first tenant was a music publisher—and there’s a publishing link today, with Barnes & Noble occupying four floors.

A little farther up Broadway at 20th Street is a mansard roof like no other. Lord & Taylor built this Victorian blowout in 1870, when this stretch of Broadway was nicknamed Ladies Mile. The enormous store featured one of New York’s first steam elevators, and the company installed the first Christmas window decorations.

A detour to Fifth Avenue and 19th Street puts this double-decker Addams Family–esque roof in view. This is the former Arnold Constable Dry Goods store, also part of Ladies Mile.

Constructed between 1869 to 1877, the monster emporium spanned 19th Street from Broadway to Fifth Avenue.

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.

tiffanyinteriornypl

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).

Korvetteschristmasgettyimages

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.

Gimbelssign2016

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]