Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

A sidewalk relic of the Hotel Carter’s better days

September 21, 2020

The Hotel Carter has been closed for months now—for good or because of a renovation, I’m not sure.

The infamous West 43rd Street hostelry, named the dirtiest hotel in America several times by TripAdvisor and the site of numerous suicides and a few horrific murders during its 90-year history (including this one in 2007), is currently hidden from view by scaffolding.

Sticking out on the sidewalk, however, is a Hotel Carter icon I’d never noticed before: this sidewalk sign—with the Carter name spelled out in script, a signifier that this is a hotel of class and taste.

Of course, the Hotel Carter was neither of these, at least in its later incarnation. Opened in 1930 as the Hotel Dixie (complete with its own basement bus station, see the sign for it at the far right in the photo below), the place was designed for business travelers who needed to be in the Times Square area.

The owners went bankrupt not long after that; the hotel changed hands over the years. The bus depot closed in 1957, unable to compete with the new Port Authority Bus Station around the corner on Eighth Avenue.

Rechristened the Hotel Carter in 1976, the hotel became largely a welfare hotel in the 1980s, though by 1984 it was so dangerous and decrepit, the city stopped sending people there, according to a 1989 Daily News article.

The Carter began attracting travelers again in the 1990s and 2000s, many of whom left illustrious scathing reviews (and photos of their bedbug-bitten skin).

Whatever becomes of the Carter, the wonderful vertical Hotel Carter sign is currently visible through the scaffolding.

Walk by and look up at it…and then down at the logo embedded in the sidewalk. If the Carter has a date with the wrecking ball soon, at least the sidewalk sign might stick around.

[Top image: Wikipedia; fourth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services]

Only one of these Gilded Age buildings still stands

September 14, 2020

Between the late 19th century and World War I, about 70 opulent (and sometimes absurdly ostentatious) mansions were built on the mile and half strip between East 59th and 90th Streets, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

By World War II, many had been demolished; wealthy New Yorkers were now favoring apartment houses instead of single-family dwellings. By the 1970s, almost all of these monuments of Gilded Age money were leveled.

The view in this turn-of-the-century postcard looks up Fifth Avenue at 60th Street. It only captures a few blocks, but not one of the mansions in the postcard still stands. (I sure wish the lavish Elbridge T. Gerry Mansion, the second one in the row, was not bulldozed…it’s wild!)

But one building in the postcard is still with us today—the headquarters of the Metropolitan Club, the stately, refined building in the foreground on the right. (At left, in 1898)

Formed in 1891 with J.P. Morgan as its first president, the Metropolitan Club consisted of New York’s major male movers and shakers. They built this Stanford White-designed clubhouse in 1893.

Exclusive clubs for power brokers and titans of industry might seem a little silly to contemporary city residents. But the Gilded Age was the great era of private clubs.

Joining the Knickerbocker Club, the Metropolitan Club, or the Union Club gave elite men a place to dine, network, and rub elbows in a comfortable space away from the office. (Clubs for elite women popped up in the early 20th century as well, like the Colony Club and the Cosmopolitan Club.)

The Metropolitan Club still exists, though now women can become members. The building extends east along 60th Street, a restrained emblem of Gilded Age society on a very different millionaires’ row. (Above, another view up Fifth Avenue, 1896)

[Postcard: MCNY F2011.33.1749; second photo: MCNY 93.1.1.2910; third photo: MCNY 93.1.1.17065]

An elegy for Lord and Taylor—and its tea rooms

August 31, 2020

After Lord & Taylor opened its new Italian Renaissance–inspired flagship building on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street in February 1914, the legendary department store continued its reputation as a retail pioneer.

The store was built with its own electricity generator and concert hall, and in 1916, the beloved holiday windows made their debut. Later, extra mirrors were added to selling floors and dressing rooms—something now totally standard for a department store—so customers had a better view of themselves and the merchandise.

But one feature Lord & Taylor installed in the new building was definitely more old school: the in-store tea room.

Tea rooms and dining areas could be found in many stores on Ladies Mile—the trapezoid shaped enclave between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th to 23rd Streets where Gilded Age women could shop, mingle, and enjoy each other’s company as they partook in the era’s consumerism. (Lord & Taylor built a magnificent store on this strip in 1870 at Broadway and 20th Street.)

As the city marched northward and department stores like Lord & Taylor relocated to Herald Square and Fifth Avenue, they brought their dining areas and tea rooms with them.

What’s so special about a department store tea room? It may sound strange to our sensibilities today, but even after the turn of the last century, women didn’t dine alone in restaurants.

The presence of a solo woman who simply wanted to rest and get a bite to eat after browsing the latest fashions might suggest she had illicit motives for being there.

And she certainly couldn’t sit at a saloon; bars were all-male preserves, and proper women didn’t drink (at least not in public).

But women shoppers needed a place to rest and refuel, especially since shopping had become something of a leisure activity, and it was one of the few activities women could do without being escorted by men.

To fill the void were confectionaries and tea rooms, some of which were inside a department store itself.

These menus from Lord & Taylor’s in-store tea room, from 1914 and 1917, can give you an idea of what (mainly) female shoppers, in groups or on their own, dined on during their shopping trips.

Much of the fare is light, and all of it non-alcoholic. Coup Julia Marlowe sound very early 1900s; she was a famous actress of the time with a spectacular mansion on Riverside Drive.

The tea rooms are gone, as is the 38th Street Lord & Taylor store. This week comes news that the company—which has its roots in a humble dry goods store opened on today’s Lower East Side in 1824—is going out of business for good.

If Lord & Taylor’s time has come, we’ll have to accept it—while remembering that in big and small ways, the store helped shape shopping habits in the late 19th and early 20th city.

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

A 44th Street stable built in 1865 is a survivor

August 17, 2020

The postage stamp–size former stable on West 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is a Civil War era survivor.

Built as part of a row of carriage houses on this one-time “stable street” in 1865, it’s the only one that still stands, according to a 2001 New York Times article. And it appears remarkably similar to the way it must have looked more than 150 years ago.

Once horses and carriages went in and out of this charming little building, and grooms may have lived upstairs. Now, the arched windows and doorways have been painted a color that matches the sidewalk.

One doorway is boarded up, the main entrance has been bricked in, and the “for rent” sign is obscured by the kind of wood boards merchants hastily put up in the spring to protect their property from rioters.

It certainly wouldn’t have been boarded up in Gilded Age New York. The first owner of the stable was Wedworth Clarke, an oil dealer living in a brownstone at 55 West 45th Street, according to the Times article.

Clarke may have used the stable to house carriages designed for ordinary use on city streets. But this was trotting horse country in the 1870s, explains a plaque closer to the Sixth Avenue side of the block near the Algonquin Hotel.

At the time, the area “was a hub for much of the trotting activity during one of the high points of harness horse history.” Trotters owned by Gilded Age wealthy men with last names like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller kept their horses within a half mile, the plaque reads.

In the late 19th century, fortunes rose and fell. The Clarke family “sold 47 West 44th Street to Edward Brandon, a prominent Wall Street stockbroker who often traded for the financier Jay Gould,” stated the Times.

“Brandon went bankrupt in 1890 and the next year had to sell 47 West 44th to Henry G. Trevor, a sportsman who founded the Shinnecock Golf Club on the East End of Long Island and lived at 6 East 45th Street.”

In 1900, with this stable block becoming more commercial and posh (Delmonico’s was about to open up on the Fifth Avenue end), Trevor sold the stable to the new Iroquois Hotel, which it was attached to.

The stable may have been used for deliveries or for guests who needed cab service to the theaters and restaurants of this newly minted entertainment district.

At some point in the ensuing decades, the stable became a restaurant itself. Here it is in a 1940 photo, renovated into a place with the gangland-like name of “Trigger’s.”

The trail goes cold after this. It served as the headquarters for a women’s press organization; it probably did more turns as a restaurant or bar.

In the 2001 New York Times article, a representative of the Iroquois Hotel said that the hotel planned to turn it into a banquet space, but that hasn’t happened. The next chapter for this 1865 stable remains in question.

[Fourth photo: New York City Department of Records and Information Services Tax Photo]

A Bryant Park memorial for a Gilded Age crusader

August 3, 2020

When ground broke in 1912 on a new fountain on the east side of Bryant Park, New Yorkers assumed that what was dubbed the “Lowell Memorial” would honor James Russell Lowell, a popular 19th century romantic poet.

Instead, the fountain, which still graces the park today (though now on the Sixth Avenue side of the park), honors the poet’s niece by marriage, Josephine Shaw Lowell (right, at age 26).

In the years before and after the turn of the century, New York City—like many other booming cities entranced by the City Beautiful movement—went on a statue- and fountain-building frenzy.

But a fountain dedicated to this female social reformer was an interesting choice in an era that tended to honor war heroes, presidents, and political leaders.

Mostly forgotten today, Lowell was famous during the Gilded Age for her 40-year devotion to ending the deep poverty that affected so many New Yorkers—the “other half,” as fellow social activist Jacob Riis described the city’s poor in his 1890 book.

Like many social reformers of the era, Lowell came from a well-off background. Born in 1843 to an old New England family, she grew up on Staten Island and in Europe.

She was widowed when she was just 21; her husband was Union Army Colonel Charles Russell Lowell, who died in battle and is seen with his bride at left.

After her husband’s death, Lowell gave birth to their daughter, Carlotta, wore black every day for the rest of her life, and continued the Union Army charity work she had been doing for the Red Cross and the Women’s Central Association of Relief.

In the years following the end of the war, a movement toward charity and benevolence took hold in New York—sort of the flip side of the crass moneymaking that typically characterizes the Gilded Age. Lowell soon became its steward.

Basing herself first in Staten Island and then in a brownstone at 120 East 30th Street (above), Lowell founded the Charity Organization Society in 1882 (which helped various charities coordinate their efforts). In 1876 she was the first woman appointed to the New York State Board of Charities. And in 1890 she launched the New York Consumer’s League, lobbying for better conditions and pay for working women.

Lowell was arguably one of the most powerful women in the late 19th century city. For 40 years, she served as “a career woman in the growing field of organized philanthropy and government service,” states Virginia Commonwealth University’s Social History Project.

What made her controversial, however, was her reliance on what was called “scientific charity,” the idea that providing direct relief (in the form of food and housing, for example) to the poor fostered dependency and led to idleness.

Scientific charity was a generally accepted concept at the time, an era in which the city provided almost no direct relief to the “deserving poor,” and charity was supposed to be given in exchange for some kind of work.

Lowell held firm to her strong convictions. She advocated that some poor residents be “committed, until reformed, to district work-houses, there to be kept at hard-labor, and educated morally and mentally,” according to Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Her dedication to eradicating poverty, though, was never in question. In a letter to her sister-in-law in 1883, Lowell wrote:

“‘Common charity, that is, feeding and clothing people, I am beginning to look upon as wicked! Not in its intention, of course, but in its carelessness and its results….If it could only be drummed into the rich that what the poor want is fair wages and not little doles of food, we should not have all this suffering and misery and vice.'”

The day after Lowell’s death from cancer in 1905 was made public, a tribute to her was published that included this summary of her life’s work: “She has championed unpopular causes when she believed they were right. She has known nothing of mere expediency, but she worked nevertheless with rare wisdom and with remarkable success.”

[Images 1, 3, and 7: Wikipedia; fourth image: Google maps; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Bryantpark.org]

All the ways to get around Times Square in 1913

July 27, 2020

This is Broadway approaching Times Square in 1913. It’s hard to make out some of the store and theater signs in this postcard, but you can see the ad for the Hotel Normandie (once located on 38th Street) advertising itself as “absolutely fireproof”—a definite selling point at the time.

What strikes me most in this view is the variety of transit modes: automobiles, wagons, streetcars, horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians walking, even a bicycle or motorbike—with no traffic lights or lanes yet to facilitate getting around!

[NYPL]

Phil’s Stationery is Midtown’s best vintage sign

July 20, 2020

When it comes to throwback store signs, few have the appeal of this one at Phil’s Stationery—a small shop that has been selling pens, pencils, paper, and other stationery and office supplies on 9 East 47th Street since the 1960s.

The faded lettering, the highlighter shade of yellow, the missing signage for Xerox copies…it’s the kind of old-school sign that for a few moments on a grimy stretch of Midtown transports you back in time to another New York.

The Midtown corner where the Draft Riots began

July 13, 2020

It’s the worst riot in New York City history, and it kicked off 157 years ago today.

On July 13, 1863, with the Civil War raging, the New York Draft Riots began: four days of mostly working-class Irish men marauded across the city—burning homes and buildings and targeting police, abolitionists, pro-war newspaper offices, and black residents, among others.

“By far the worst violence was reserved for African-American men, a number of whom were lynched or beaten to death with shocking brutality,” states History.com. An estimated 119 people were killed, and countless buildings destroyed.

Though the riots spread to parts of Brooklyn on the third day, most of the violence took place in Manhattan. The atrocities kicked off on this unassuming East Midtown corner at Third Avenue and 47th Street.

Why here? This is where the Ninth District provost marshal’s office was located. A new federal conscription law had been passed, and the names of all men in the district who were deemed eligible for military duty were entered into a lottery here. Those selected would be called up to serve.

The draft law was unpopular among working men. “The complaints—and the violence that followed—focused mainly on two exempted groups: the rich, who could pay $300 to escape the draft, and blacks, who were not considered citizens,” wrote the New York Times in 2017.

The first day of the lottery, Saturday, July 11, was peaceful. The second drawing, two days later on Monday morning, took a dark turn.

“Employees of the city’s railroads, shipyards, machine shops, and ironworks and hundreds of other laborers failed to show up for work,” stated Stephen D. Lut in an 2000 article in America’s Civil War, via historynet. “By 8 o’clock, the workers were streaming up Eighth and Ninth avenues, closing shops, factories, and construction sites and urging their workers to join them.”

“The procession congregated in Central Park for a brief meeting, then formed into two columns that marched to the Ninth District provost marshal’s office. They carried ‘NO DRAFT’ placards.”

As the lottery got underway, the crowd of about 500 outside threw stones and bricks at the windows, terrifying families who lived on the upper floors of the building, according to a Times article written the next day.

The crowd battled their way inside, destroyed paperwork, beat the deputy provost marshal, and fought off policemen who tried to quell the disorder.

A fire was lit—possibly by firemen who joined in the rioting—and the entire block was consumed, touching off bloodshed and destruction all across Manhattan. A month after the riots were finally stopped by 4,000 federal troops, the draft lottery process resumed.

[Second image: Digital Library of America; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: House Divided/Dickenson College]

Travel back in time with vintage NYC store signs

June 29, 2020

The New York City of the moment is bringing many people down. Luckily, we can escape with a little time traveling thanks to these old-school store signs.

Matles Florist has been in Manhattan since 1962, and the vintage sign with the very 1960s typeface shows it. The store is on 57th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

Is there anything better than a not-fancy New York pizza place? I don’t know how long Belmora, on East 57th near Lexington, has been cranking out slices, but the sign in the colors of Italy looks like it goes back to the 1970s.

Mike Bloomberg was apparently a fan of J.G. Melon, the corner restaurant made famous by its burgers. The place got its start in 1972, and it’s certainly possible the no-frills vertical neon sign dates back to the 1970s as well.

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).