Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

How New York did coffee in the 1950s and 1960s

December 3, 2018

If you’re craving coffee in the contemporary city, you’ve got options: your local Starbucks, a mini-chain like Birch or Gregorys, even a corner no-frills bagel cart.

But in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—before ordering coffee meant navigating a dizzying array of blends and milk options—New Yorkers sipped a simple cup of joe at one humble coffee house: Chock Full o’Nuts.

By the 1960s, about 30 Chock Full o’Nuts restaurants dotted the city. They were so ubiquitous, I wonder if any patrons questioned the name and what nuts had to do with it.

Turns out the chain actually began as a shelled nut shop in 1926.

That’s when a Russian immigrant named William Black opened his first nut store in Times Square, according to Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

By 1932, Black’s original store under a staircase at Broadway and 43rd Street expanded, and he eventually owned 18 nut shops.

But with the Depression still raging, Black “converted his nut shops into inexpensive cafes where a nickel would buy a cup of quality coffee and a ‘nutted cheese’ sandwich—cream cheese with chopped walnuts on lightly toasted whole wheat raisin bread,” states Savoring Gotham.

The famously delicious cream cheese sandwich would eventually be made with date bread, and the menu expanded to donuts, soup, and pie.

When Chock Full o’Nuts reigned as the number one coffee shop in New York City in 1955, the price of a cup came in at just 15 cents.

Customers appreciated the low price, no-tipping policy, and also the cleanliness. Employees prepared the food using tongs, not their hands.

By then, the chain had introduced their own brand of coffee in supermarkets. The catchy TV jingle about the “heavenly coffee” is forever burned into the brains of every native New Yorker born before 1980.

So what happened, and how did Chock Full o’Nuts fall?

After Black died in 1983, the company didn’t adapt to changing consumer tastes, according to a 1990 Washington Post article. In 1988, the 18 remaining Chock Full o’Nuts restaurants were sold to the management chain Riese Brothers.

The last Chock Full o’Nuts hung on in the 1990s at Madison Avenue and 41st Street. In 2010, the name was revived at a new coffee house on 23rd Street, but it closed two years later.

Chock Full o’Nuts ground coffee can still be purchased in stores, its yellow, green, and black coffee can marked by an image of the New York skyline—a reminder of the restaurant’s place in Gotham’s culinary history.

[Top photo: Chock Full o’Nuts website; second photo: MCNY, 1932, 35.165.49; third photo: Chock Full o’Nuts print by Ken Keeley; fourth photo: Chock Full O’Nuts on Cedar Street, New York Times; fifth photo: Chock Full o’Nuts on Canal Street, MCNY, 1980, 2013.3.2.864]

A 1970s yellow store sign hangs on in Midtown

October 29, 2018

How long has Phil’s Stationery been at 9 East 47th Street, a low-rise gritty stretch between the gleaming towers and hotels north of Grand Central Terminal?

I’m not sure, but that mac and cheese yellow sign with the partly cursive lettering feels like it’s from the early 1970s.

Something’s missing from it, though. The sign used to say “Zerox Copies.”

In the last decade, as 47th Street went from the edge of the Diamond District to a side street adjacent to Little Brazil, that charming misspelling was removed.

A Midtown bar that still has a wood phone booth

October 22, 2018

Beer has been flowing at P.J. Clarke’s on Third Avenue and 55th Street since Chester Arthur was president.

And while the place looks spiffier than it has in recent years, it’s still one of those old-school saloons that kept its Gilded Age decor, like stained glass, amber lights, and a pressed tin ceiling.

There’s another old New York relic P.J. Clarke’s appears to have held onto: the bar’s wooden phone booth.

Way back in the dinosaur era of payphones, every public place had one: a phone booth with a hinged door and small stool a person would tuck themselves into to make their call out of earshot.

While the phone itself and the seat are no longer in the booth at P.J.’s, the booth itself is still there  beside the end of the bar—only now it’s used to store glasses and napkins.

Not convinced that this casket-like space was a phone booth? Check out how similar its shape is to these, spotted at the Park Avenue Armory in 2010, and this one, at Bill’s on 54th Street, ID’d in 2015.

A New York public restroom out of the Gilded Age

October 8, 2018

With its granite walls, long oval window, and decorative touches like wreaths and rosettes carved into the facade, it looks more like a temple (or a mausoleum) that a restroom.

But this Beaux-Arts little building on the north side of Bryant Park is a comfort station, as it was originally called when it was constructed along with the main New York Public Library building in 1911.

In 1922, the comfort station was moved from closer to the library (see above in a Daily News photo, when it was near Fifth Avenue) to a section of Bryant Park on the 42nd Street side.

At this location now for 96 years, it fits right in with nearby stairs, statues, and lampposts that are also straight out of the turn of the last century. And to the relief of passersby and park goers, it’s open to the public.

Even though the restroom looks very Gilded Age on the outside, inside features the latest in modern bathroom luxury. Amenities include Toto toilets, earth-shade wall tiles, seat covers, fresh flowers, and attendants, according to a 2017 New York Times piece.

I’m guessing that this Beaux Arts comfort station is the city’s poshest public place to go.

Up until the 1990s, it wasn’t even open; it shuttered during Bryant Park’s druggy heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

If you’re curious about taking a look to see the inside, be warned: the line can be dozens of people deep on a sunny park-perfect weekend.

The Gothic-style Starbucks on Lexington Avenue

September 24, 2018

If you love tall city buildings with Gothic-style architectural touches, then feast your eyes on 511 Lexington Avenue.

This circa-1929 structure features a feast of cathedral-like Medieval dragons, griffins, and grotesques that appear to be ready to launch themselves off the facade and into Midtown.

Four human figures each representing a season are also on the facade, from spring to summer to winter to fall.

Head inside, and overhead you’ll see rows of gilded allegorical characters representing the human experience: one holds a palate, another reads by candlelight, another might be holding a sickle.

Sumptuous displays of Gothic ornamentation can be found all over New York. But this is the first time I’ve seen anything like it at a Starbucks, which (discreetly) occupies the ground floor of this building, the Lexington Hotel.

The 27-story Lexington (check out these cheapo 1930s room prices) was previously known for its mid-century Hawaiian Room and illustrious residents Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe lived here during their marriage in the 1950s.

Now it’s reputation could hinge on having the one Starbucks in New York that features carvings at its entrance that make you think you’re about to order your cold brew in a Normanesque church in Europe.

It’s certainly a lot different from another unusual Starbucks in Greenpoint…housed in a 1920s ex-neighborhood movie theater, complete with awning!

Italian food stores have New York’s best signs

July 23, 2018

Most of them are in the city’s faded Little Italy neighborhoods—white, green, and red store signs with 1970s-style letters spelling out an Italian surname and the choice delicacies they sell.

Mozzarella, ricotta, tortellini, gnocchi: Whatever the vintage sign says, you know you’re in good hands. So many of these old-school Italian food stores have closed up shop, it’s good to celebrate the ones that remain.

Like Piemonte Ravioli on Grand Street. Established in 1920. Reading the “Made Here Daily” sign in the window makes my mouth water.

Same with Russo’s, making mozzarella and fresh pasta since 1908 on East 11th Street—once the center of a mostly defunct Little Italy in today’s East Village.

Italian cakes and pastries are baked on the premises at Caffe Roma on Mulberry Street, going strong since 1891. I like this painted ad better than their actual store sign.

Park Italian Gourmet was unfortunately closed when I walked by on a weekend. Hopefully because it’s on 45th Street in Midtown and the office lunch crowds weren’t there, not because this Italian hero joint has shuttered permanently.

It’s too late for this Italian bakery with a different kind of sign in the Bronx’s Little Italy centered on Arthur Avenue. RIP.

The fence post turtles adorning East 49th Street

July 9, 2018

Turtle Bay is one of the most enchantingly named neighborhoods in Manhattan.

But did colonial settlers give this swatch of East Midtown its name because of the plethora of turtles they saw in a creek that emptied into the East River?

Or is “turtle” an anglicized form of the Dutch word deutal, which means bent blade or knife—once the shape of the bay?

The truth is lost to the ages. But turtles are what inspired the designers of this iron fence along East 49th Street between Second and Third Avenues.

The fence keeps the riffraff away from these elegant townhouses, which are part of Turtle Bay Gardens, a collection of 19th century brownstones lining East 48th Street and East 49th Street that were restored in the 1920s.

The 20 houses are connected in the back by a shared secret garden modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome between East 48th and East 49th Streets (below in 1920).

These exclusive residences gave Turtle Bay cachet, and they become home to privacy-seeking celebrities like Katherine Hepburn, Bob Dylan, and Stephen Sondheim.

Most of us will never get a personal glimpse inside one of these beauties or the hidden garden. (Though real estate listings offer a peek inside the restored homes.)

But we can walk down East 49th Street and get a kick out of the turtle-adorned fence posts, which pay homage to the aquatic creatures the neighborhood may or may not be named for.

[Third and fourth images: Library of Congress]

Why this elephant at the UN is hidden from view

July 9, 2018

It’s easy to miss this enormous statue of an elephant at the northern end of the grounds of the United Nations.

This 7,000 pound bronze pachyderm is located behind a black iron fence at 48th Street and First Avenue, in a corner of thick foliage and shadowy trees.

Unlike the front-and-center statue of St. George on a horse brandishing a sword above a dragon (a gift from the Soviet Union in 1990), the lifelike UN elephant seems almost purposely hidden away from view.

And it is, actually—because UN officials decided the elephant’s 2-foot erect penis was a little too lifelike.

A gift from Kenya, Namibia, and Nepal, the sculpture was supposed to “remind UN visitors of humans’ responsibility to the environment,” according to a 1998 AP article, which paraphrased then-Secretary General Kofi Annan’s dedication speech.

“The sheer size of this creature humbles us,” the AP quoted Annan, “as well it should, for it tells us that some things are bigger than we are.”

Before the dedication ceremony, potted plants and trees were “hauled in to block a side view of the animal,” the AP stated.

The Bulgarian-born sculpture, Mihail, was none too pleased to learn that UN officials were embarrassed by his work.

”I take it as a joke,” Mihail told the New York Times in 1990. ”Until I saw myself the bushes being planted. This is exactly the problem between people and wildlife. They create a frontier. Like the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall.”

Apparently potted plants weren’t enough. At some point, the UN banished the elephant to this dark corner, its anatomy shielded by shrubbery.

It really is shielded; I couldn’t get a photo of it at all from any angle. Luckily Buzzfeed was at the UN in 2014 and appears to have secured a closer view.

[Third photo: Alamy; fourth photo, Wikipedia, 2006]

Dreaming on the elevated tracks at 47th Street

July 2, 2018

New York is a city of dreamers. But I wonder what the girl in John J. Soble’s 1936 painting is thinking about.

We see her on the edge of what looks like a tenement roof, staring out onto the (soon to be demolished) Sixth Avenue elevated tracks and to Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, and beyond.

Her leg is kicked up in a youthful pose, while the woman holding the chair behind her seems older. A train is coming down the tracks as laundry hangs from a roof in the distance. She might be a neighborhood girl, but big city dreams beckon.

A Beekman bath house for the “great unwashed”

July 2, 2018

A century ago, during a heat wave like the one New York is sweltering under right now, this building on East 54th Street would probably have been packed with people—with a line weaving through its four Doric columns.

This was the 54th Street bathhouse, one of 13 public baths the city opened after a state law passed in 1895 mandating free public bathhouses in large cities, according to a 2011 Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) report.

It shares some details with the other public bathhouses that still exist in the city. See the dolphins and Poseidon’s trident decorating the columns.

Then there’s the stately, grand entrance. This was an era when public buildings were emblems of the city.

Entryways were designed to welcome residents—even the hundreds of thousands who lived in primitive tenements without bathing facilities and were part of what Mayor William Strong called “the great unwashed.”

That may have been an apt description for the residents of East 54th Street between First and Second Avenues. When the bath opened in 1911, this was a mostly Irish district of factory workers, laborers, and men who did the hard work at the many breweries in the area.

In its short heyday, the 54th Street Baths offered 79 showers for men and 59 for women; they were free to use, but bathers had to bring their own towel and soap.

The building also featured a gym, running track, and a rooftop playground—note the curves at the rooftop.

“In its first year of operation the building served more than 130,000 men and women; that number more than doubled the next year,” states the LPC report.

“Each patron, depending on their gender, entered the bathing facility through separate entrances that led to a waiting room.

A central office provided the only means of access between the waiting rooms, thus ensuring that men and women did not interact once they entered the bath house.” (Interior showers, at left)

By 1920, things had changed. Tenements were increasingly outfitted with showers and bathrooms, according to the LPC.

The neighborhood became fashionable as well, with nearby Sutton Place and Beekman Place turned into enclaves for the rich.

The baths closed in the 1930s and the building was revamped into a community recreation center, as it is to this day.