Archive for the ‘Fashion and shopping’ Category

A faded Woolworth’s store in East Harlem comes back in view

June 14, 2021

On a dreary stretch of Third Avenue at 121st Street in East Harlem is a block-long, two-story building emptied of tenants, waiting for the wrecking ball.

But hiding behind a metal frame on the exterior is a throwback to a very different New York: the faded imprint of a Woolworth’s sign against that iconic red backdrop: “F.W. Woolworth Co.”

Before Amazon, before Target, and before Walgreens there was Woolworth’s, the five-and-dime store chain that sold everything from underwear to goldfish to school supplies to sewing patterns throughout the 20th century.

Some had lunch counters, popular places to grab a cheap bite before the era of fast food and Starbucks. (Those lunch counters often attracted the down and out and lonely, as I recall from many, many trips to a Greenwich Village Woolworth’s as a kid.)

Woolworth had a strong presence in New York City. In Manhattan alone Woolworth’s occupied storefronts on Eighth Street, both ends of 14th Street, and all the major cross streets up to 125th Street.

Woolworth’s was once a regular shopping stop for all kinds of necessities; in New York City, they even played a role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Yet in it’s final decades, the store came off as shabby and doddering.

When the store at 2226 Third Avenue was built and then closed is something of a mystery. The last Woolworth’s in the US shut its doors in 1997.

I have a feeling this Woolworth’s disappeared long before that—though it existed in the 1930s, as the NYPL photo shows above, and it made it into the 1940 NYC tax photo, too.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

A 1970s remnant of a Crazy Eddie record store

June 7, 2021

I have no idea why the original owner of this yellow paper bag from Crazy Eddie’s held onto it for so long. But when it turned up for sale at a vintage shop (pressed in plastic, no less), I couldn’t resist spending a few bucks to own a piece of 1970s/1980s New York history.

If you lived in the New York City area in those decades, then you remember the electronics store and record/tape shop Crazy Eddie—mainly for the commercials, which featured a DJ named Jerry Carroll gesturing and shouting that the store’s prices were insane. (Sometimes in a santa claus cap for the annual Christmas in August sale.)

The original Crazy Eddie was on King’s Highway in Brooklyn. But the store’s TV ad schtick and actual low prices spread franchises to the Bronx, Manhattan, upstate, and Long Island.

Unfortunately it was all over for Crazy Eddie’s owners by the 1990s, thanks to inflating sales numbers and other illegal business practices that mandated store closures and jail time. New Yorkers turned to other electronics stores like (Nobody Beats) the Wiz and J&R Music World, but these too are long gone from the cityscape.

A quick Google maps check shows that the original King’s Highway store is now a bank branch.

[Second image: New York Daily News February 22, 1980; third image: Youtube]

What an artist captured on 1950s Orchard Street

April 19, 2021

When Joseph Sherly Sheppard painted these three scenes of Orchard Street in the 1950s, this eight-block stretch of the Lower East Side was devoted to cut-rate commerce.

Unglamorous tenement storefronts jockey for space, merchandise spills onto the sidewalk, and sign after colorful sign advertised such utilitarian items like coats, linens, eyeglasses, and hosiery.

Orchard in the 1950s seems emptier than it had been in the early decades of the 20th century, when it was a packed Jewish immigrant enclave.

Commerce continues to reign on Orchard today, and some blocks still have the feel of a mid-20th century flashback.

But like so much of today’s Lower East Side, this old city street (named for the orchards that once graced the 18th century DeLancey estate) is glammed up with new condos, restaurants, and trendier, higher-end stores. Older ladies carrying bulging shopping bags are a rarer sight these days.

Born in Maryland in 1930, Sheppard has had a long career as a realist painter. He painted unique scenes of humanity, from sunbathers to circus performers to grape pickers. Most of his work depicts places other than New York City. But something drew him to Orchard Street.

Sheppard once again painted Orchard Street in 1982: it’s a scene outside a clothing store that displays its wares like an open-air market.

The 1982 painting is similar to those from the 1950s (the “I Love NY” shirt confirms its era): clothes hang over the sidewalk, pedestrians and delivery people go about their business, and the occasional curious customer contemplates a deal.

[First and second images: Artnet.com; third image: Invaluable.com; fourth image: Artnet.com]

What remains of the Stern’s store on 23rd Street

April 5, 2021

When the Stern Brothers opened their new Dry Goods Store at 32-36 West 23rd Street in October 1878, New York’s growing consumer class was floored.

The three Stern brothers from Buffalo had outgrown their previous shop on West 23rd Street as well as their first New York City store, established in 1867, around the corner at 367 Sixth Avenue). So a new cathedral of commerce was needed, and it featured a stunning cast-iron facade and five stories of selling space.

Stern’s was now the city’s biggest department store—one that catered to both aspirational middle-class shoppers and the wealthy carriage trade. These elite shoppers entered a separate door on 22nd Street, so as not to rub shoulders with the riffraff.

But everyone who came to Stern’s left feeling like a million bucks.

”When the customer entered the store, he was welcomed personally by one of the Stern brothers, all of whom wore gray-striped trousers and cutaway tailcoats,” wrote the New York Times in 2001, quoting Larry Stone, who started at Stern’s in 1948 as a trainee and retired as chief executive in 1993. ”Pageboys escorted the customer to the department in which they wished to shop, and purchases were sent out in elegant horse-drawn carriages and delivered by liveried footmen.”

Stern’s was such a popular spot on 23rd Street—the northern border of what became known as the Ladies Mile Shopping District, where women were free to browse and buy without having to be escorted by their husbands or fathers—this dry goods emporium was enlarged in 1892.

The store was always a stop for tourists, too. “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,” wrote 12-year-old Naomi King, who kept a travel diary of her visit to the city with her parents from Indiana in 1899.

King wrote that 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.”

But Stern’s reign as one of the most popular shops on Ladies Mile wouldn’t last—mainly because Ladies Mile didn’t last. Macy’s was the first store to relocate uptown, from 14th Street and Sixth Avenue to Herald Square, in 1903.

Other big-name department stores followed. Stern’s made the jump to 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue in 1913, leaving their old building behind, according to a 1967 New York Times article marking the store’s centennial. For most of the 20th century, the palatial building on 23rd Street was used for light industry and commercial concerns.

That 42nd Street flagship store would ultimately close in 1970, wrote Gerard R. Wolfe in New York: A Guide to the Metropolis. By 2001, Stern’s shut down all of its stores and went out of business.

Since 2000s, Home Depot has occupied the old Stern’s dry goods palace, and it seems as if every trace of Stern’s has long been striped from the building.

Except on the facade. If you look up above the Home Depot Sign, you can see the initials “SB,” a permanent reminder of this magnificent building’s original triumphant owners.

[Top three images: NYPL Digital Collection]

What an 1850s winter scene says about New York life

February 22, 2021

At first glance, “Winter Scene on Broadway” does what colorized engravings are supposed to do, which is to offer a dramatic, romantic view of life in New York City, mainly for nonresidents.

In this case, the overview is the hustle and bustle of Gotham’s most famous thoroughfare between Prince and Spring Streets in wintertime: icicles hanging from handsome buildings, pedestrians of all stripes navigating the sidewalks, and a jam-packed streetcar fitted with sled rails and pulled by three teams of horses making its way through the snow.

But when you look a little closer, a series of mini stories appear. And these small narratives tell us a lot about how New Yorkers experienced day-to-day life in the mid-1850s—the time period when French painter Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron completed his depiction of the wintry city. (The colorized engraving was done in 1857.)

Take a look at the carriage sleigh on the far right, with four well-dressed individuals chauffeured by a coachman. New York was prosperous at the time of the painting, and the ability to afford a private carriage was a signifier of true wealth. The coachman is African-American, as coachmen often were; it was one of the few professions open to Black New Yorkers at the time.

These folks in their elegant carriage would have no idea that the Panic of 1857 was about to hit, shutting down banks and throwing thousands of New Yorkers out of work. Right now, they could be on their way to a party.

See the firemen in the center and an engine in the street? The three men appear to be responding to an alarm. One blows what looks like a horn—likely a device called a speaking trumpet, which firemen used to amplify their voices while giving orders.

In the 1850s, firefighters were still an all-volunteer crew, and engine, hose, and hook and ladder companies were more like fraternal organizations. They could be fierce rivals who wanted to get to the scene of a blaze first, which these two in Sebron’s painting might be rushing to do.

Meanwhile, two women in hoop skirts with hand muffs stroll up Broadway. (How heavy all their skirts and coats must have been!) They’re probably shopping, as this part of Broadway in the 1850s would have been lined with fine shops and emporiums. Grand Street was the center of this shopping district, but stores were inching northward below Houston Street.

Two men are walking on the sidewalk holding signs. I can’t read what the signs say, but the George Glazer Gallery explains that they are “Chinese immigrants [carrying] advertising signs for P.T. Barnum’s nearby museum.” Barnum’s American Museum was several blocks down Broadway at Ann Street. Kind of a cross between a zoo, theater, and sideshow, it was one of the premier attractions for New Yorkers and tourists alike.

Chinese immigrants didn’t settle in the city en masse until the 1870s, which of course doesn’t mean these sign holders didn’t arrive earlier from China. But it does raise the possibility that they are men simply dressing up to look Chinese—the kind of stunt Barnum’s Museum wouldn’t object to.

One more small story in the painting is about the streetcar. Though New Yorkers routinely complained about them—they were crowded and dirty, among other problems—horse-pulled cars were the only mass transit available in the 1850s city. This one looks like it says “Broadway” on the front, and it’s standing room only with some people hanging off the side. Straw likely lines the floor, the only insulation available.

Sebron’s painting captures just a moment during one decade in New York. Quickly, things change: a recession arrives, and then the Civil War. Taller cast-iron buildings replace the three- and four-story walkups. (Though the five-story building on the right is still with us, as the photo of the same stretch of Broadway in 2021 above reveals.)

The Broadway shopping district will relocate uptown, and shops and emporiums will line 10th Street to 23rd Street. Barnum’s Museum burns to the ground in 1865, and newer forms of entertainment will replace it.

A thermometer and clock on a Broadway building

November 16, 2020

Sometime after the New York Sun moved into 280 Broadway between Reade and Chambers Street in 1919, it made its presence known by adding two things to the facade of this circa-1845 building: a fantastically gorgeous four-face clock and two-sided thermometer.

The Sun’s bronze clock: “It shines for all”

It makes sense for a storied publication in New York’s competitive newspaper world of the era to install these on the new headquarters’ Italianate facade.

The Sun thermometer: It was not 120 degrees outside when this photo was taken

Both the clock and the thermometer carried the Sun’s name, so it was good advertising on this busy corner north of City Hall Park. Also, as a newspaper, the Sun existed to inform—and that includes informing passersby about the time and temperature.

Long after the Sun closed up shop in 1952 and departed what became known as the Sun Building (though before that, it was A.T. Stewart’s first department store, his “Marble Palace”), the beautiful clock is still with us on the southwest corner.

The Sun building, 1917

The thermometer, on the northwest corner at Reade Street, was in its usual spot a few years ago. It was broken then, but that’s okay, I just hope it still exists.

[Third photo: New-York Historical Society]

Two elite addresses on 1830s Bleecker Street

October 5, 2020

Named for the family whose farm once surrounded it, Bleecker Street between the Bowery and Sixth Avenue became one of New York’s most fashionable addresses in the 1830s.

Leroy Place, drawn by architect Alexander Jackson Davis in 1831

But for rich New Yorkers, it wasn’t enough to just live on Bleecker Street. Two developments in particular were built to cater to the cream of the crop.

The first was Leroy (or LeRoy) Place, above. Spanning the south side of the block between Mercer and Greene Streets, Leroy Place emulated the “terraces,” or terraced houses, popular in London—essentially a group of identical attached townhouses with harmonious front yards.

Isaac G. Pearson hired architect Alexander Jackson Davis to design Leroy Place, which he built out of granite, according to Luther S. Harris’ Around Washington Square. Once it was finished, Pearson managed to get the city to rename the block after his development.

Leroy Place on an 1835 map of New York City, by Henry Schenk Tanner

“Christened LeRoy Place in honor of the Knickerbocker merchant Jacob LeRoy, its Federal-style row houses sold for a hefty twelve thousand dollars,” states Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New Yorkers with names like Clinton and Beekman took up residence here.

Impressed with the way Pearson attracted Clintons, Beekmans, and other affluent New Yorkers, Francis DePau completed DePau Row between Thompson and Sullivan Streets in 1830.

DePau Row, in what’s described as a proposed illustration, from MCNY (32.159.1)

DePau Row had just six houses. “All were unified by their identical height, a seamless finish, and common detailing, including a long ornamental iron verandah—the first in the city—extending across all six fronts,” states Around Washington Square.

A.T. Stewart, dry goods mogul, lived at DePau row, as did Valentine Mott, one of the city’s most esteemed surgeons.

While Leroy Place and DePau Row had status in their day, their wealthy residents decamped for more spacious homes uptown as soon as commercialism (and lower class people) crept in. “By 1853, the Builder observed that ‘Bond and Bleecker Streets, that were then the ultima thule of aristocracy, are now but plebian streets,’ per the NYPL.

Depau Row, 1896, from the New-York Historical Society

Leroy Place in the 1850s and beyond hosted an oyster house, furniture warehouse, and saloon. Long after it lost its luster, it was demolished in the mid-20th century.

DePau Row also fell into disrepair; it was bulldozed in 1896 to make way for Mills House No. 1, a home for single men funded by banker and philanthropist Darius Ogden Mills.

The magnificence of Macy’s 1902 front entrance

June 22, 2020

Chances are you haven’t been to Macy’s lately, considering that the flagship Herald Square store has been closed since the pandemic began, and it was also the site of looting during the protests earlier this month.

But with Macy’s set to reopen tomorrow along with other retailers, remind yourself of the grandeur of this iconic New York City emporium by taking a look at what was once the store’s Beaux Arts, gilded front entrance—with its timepiece squarely in the center.

The entrance would have fit in nicely with the architectural styles of 1902, when the Macy’s made the risky leap from a collection of buildings on 14th Street—part of the famed shopping district known as Ladies Mile—to Herald Square.

The other department stores of Ladies Mile are largely gone, but mighty Macy’s is a survivor…just like the city where the store started in 1858 (above).

A department store becomes a makeshift hospital

March 23, 2020

This week, plans are underway to turn the glass-encased Jacob Javits Center into a hospital for the expected surge in coronavirus patients. It sounds radical, but it wouldn’t be the first time New York quickly took a massive open space and transformed it into a medical center.

It happened in 1918 with the Siegel-Cooper store, above. When this enormous emporium opened in September 1896, New York shoppers had their minds blown.

Inside a new Beaux-Arts building that spanned Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets—choice real estate along Ladies Mile—”the Big Store” featured 15 acres of more than 100 departments, restaurants, and a soon-to-be-famous fountain.

In its early years, Siegel-Cooper was by all accounts a success. But by the early 1900s, New York’s biggest stores were following Macy’s lead and relocating to Herald Square.

Siegel-Cooper was in financial trouble. After a new owner and name change to “Greenhut’s,” it closed for good in 1918.

What to do with an enormous empty building in what was no longer a prime neighborhood?

Turn it into a makeshift hospital—just in time for the return of American soldiers wounded while fighting the Great War in Europe.

Within months, the store that once featured the latest fashions and even boasted a bicycle department was now known as Debarkation Hospital Number 3, a temporary home for hundreds of doughboys whose conditions ranged from mild to grave.

“In general, debarkation hospitals were intended to receive overseas patients who landed back on United States soil,” states a historical note to a collection of papers from a nurse at Debarkation Hospital No. 5, on Lexington Avenue and 46th Street in the former Grand Central Palace exhibition hall.

New York quickly turned other empty buildings into makeshift debarkation hospitals. One was at Ellis Island, another on Staten Island.

No. 3 was ready for wounded men by November 1918.

“About 250 additional wounded soldiers from overseas arrived here yesterday and were taken to Debarkation Hospital No. 3, the old Greenhut store at 18th Street and Sixth Avenue….The newcomers, all practically recovered, brought the total of soldiers in the hospital up to 700,” wrote the New York Times on November 25.

The six floors of the former store had room for 3,000 soldiers. While entertainers visited and politicians took photo ops, the goal was to help the men convalesce yet get them back to their hometowns, where a hospital closer to loved ones could treat them.

Debarkation Hospital appears to have only served as a medical center for a few years. And if the facade (or the interior columns) look familiar, it’s because the same building now houses Bed, Bath, and Beyond!

[Second photo: unknown; third photo: MCNY X2011.34.280; fourth photo: LOC; fifth photo: Alamy; sixth image: New York Times]

All the ways to get to 23rd Street in 1910

January 20, 2020

By foot, streetcar, horse-driven carriage, automobile, or elevated train, New Yorkers at the turn of the 20th century came to do its shopping on 23rd Street—the northern border of the Ladies Mile shopping district, which boasted eminent stores such as Stern Brothers and Best & Co.

23rd Street was such a busy shopping corridor, postcards showing the commercial hustle and bustle were printed for sale. This one, dated 1910, looks to capture the street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

See the “toys” sign hanging off a building on the left? That might be the original FAO Schwarz, which operated at 39 and 41 West 23rd Street from 1897 to 1935, when the store moved uptown.

[Postcard: MCNY X2011.34.504]