Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

Gilded Age Manhattan aglow in a rainy twilight

January 28, 2019

UPDATE: Turns out this painting is probably not Columbus Circle, as Artnet had it; it looks like opposite Madison Square. Thanks to eagle-eyed ENY readers for catching]

Columbus Circle in the 1890s must have dazzled the senses.

The towering granite monument that gave the Circle its name was unveiled in 1892. On one side was the entrance to the carriage lanes and horse paths of Central Park, and on the other could be heard the “uninterrupted whirr” of the Broadway cable cars heading downtown, as Stephen Crane described it.

Stylish electric street lights illuminated the Circle with globes of sunshine. The Theater District was now just blocks away to the south; the new apartment houses and townhouse blocks of what was still known as the West End were rising to the north.

And a mostly forgotten artist named William Louis Sonntag, Jr. captured the din and dazzle in this painting, giving us a view of twilight at Columbus Circle on a rainy, magical night.

A swanky New Year’s menu from 1935 New York

December 31, 2018

When Essex House opened on Central Park South in 1931, it was an instant hit with well-to-do, fashionable New Yorkers who didn’t let things like the Great Depression or Prohibition stop their partying.

This menu card, from the Museum of the City of New York, is dated 1935; it shows New Year’s Eve revelers in the hotel’s Colonnades ballroom.

On the back of the card are some of the food offerings for the night: Swedish relish, olives, and salted nuts as appetizers; mignon beef Bearnaise, braised celery au jus, and potatoes royale for the main course. Dessert: petits fours and glace vanilla nesselrode.

[MCNY: 2003.50.2]

The mysterious furrier of West 46th Street

December 31, 2018

West 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues is shadowy and gritty; it’s a low-slung block of restaurants and small shops occupying converted brownstones and renovated office buildings.

Because it’s one of those unusually frozen in time blocks, it’s a stretch with many mysteries. One I’ve always wondered about has to do with the box-like structure with big windows at number 34-36.

Built in 1914 as a loft, the building’s entrance has what looks like a frieze with scenes of a charioteer and crowds of women and children, something right out of ancient Greece.

It’s a strange and mysterious scene. But even more mysterious to me is the sign in a small second floor window: furs.

West 46th Street is a little north of the city’s former fur district, where furriers and fur manufacturers reigned through much of the 20th century.

It didn’t take long to locate the furrier who occupied this storefront and find out that he worked here as far back as 1916. William C. Emerick advertised his “furs of the quality sort” in Harper’s Bazaar (above right) back then, 103 years ago.

In 1920, he also appeared in a fur trade journal (above center).

I don’t know when Emerick left the premises, but amazingly, his furs sign remains, slightly faded but perfectly legible.

Ghost signs of New York’s small business past

December 24, 2018

All the turnover lately among the small shops of New York City has one upside: Store signs from decades ago that had been long buried come back into view—like these two signs spotted by Ephemeral New York readers.

The first is at 7105 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst. Up until recently, it was covered by a sign containing Chinese letters, a reflection of the influx of Chinese immigrants in this corner of Brooklyn.

But when that sign came down, this understated one for Charlie & Brothers Fish Market emerged. The building dates back to the 1930s, and the sign looks like it could be that old too.

Apparently the store had been a fish market until the 1990s under a different name, Mola. Who was Charlie?

Just as mysterious is this sign on Seventh Avenue and 56th Street, for an establishment called Wilson’s.

The small store is surrounded by the usual Midtown jumble of tourist spots, cafes, and electronics shops. The entire building has construction scaffolding around it, so it probably won’t be with us much longer. What remains of Wilson’s is destined to be bulldozed with the larger building it’s part of.

[Thanks to Eric V. and Amy S. for these photos!]

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.