Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

An early city bus motors down Fifth Avenue

June 27, 2016

It doesn’t look very sturdy or comfortable. And an awful lot of people seem packed into that upper deck.

But if you needed to travel along Fifth Avenue between Washington Square and 59th Street in the early 1900s, this was your mode of transportation.

Double Decker2

New York was the first city to use “motor omnibuses” for public transit, and the earliest fleet hit the streets in 1902, according to The Wheels That Drove New York. In 1905, the Fifth Avenue Coach Company invested in 15 French DeDion Bouton double deckers, like the one in the postcard.

Motor buses for commuters were a hit, and even sightseeing buses popped up, the precursors to today’s big red tourist haulers. Within a few years, Fifth Avenue’s horse-drawn omnibuses were history.

The Gilded Age excess of Manhattan’s first mall

June 6, 2016

Did the modern shopping mall get its start thanks to this Beaux Arts beauty?

Well, maybe. This pioneering temple of commerce stood at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street for just a decade, from 1901 to 1911.

Windsorarcade1905

But what a building the Windsor Arcade was, a three-story gem that epitomized Gilded Age excess, from the sculptures and columns decorating the facade to the carriage drive leading to the center courtyard to the ornate details inside its shops.

Windsorarcade19052An arcade was a place that contained several stores, and the Windsor Arcade is thought to be the first modern-style shopping mall in New York City, writes Marcia Reiss in Lost New York.

“Considered one of the most beautiful retail buildings ever constructed in the city, it was modeled on the enclosed streets of small shops in London and Paris,” states Reiss.

The Windsor was “the only modern arcade in the city; this enterprise is not a department store but a gathering together under one roof of leading retail merchants in their respective lines,” according to one magazine in 1907.

Windsorhotel1898Among the stores inside were Steinway & Sons Pianos, art galleries, a milliner, china and glass sellers, and a photo portrait studio—all catering to the city’s well-off, who took part in the relatively new indulgence of shopping for fun and pleasure.

For such an ostentatious commercial venture, however, the Windsor Arcade has a tragic past.

It rose from the ashes of the Windsor Hotel (above left, in 1898), the site of a horrific fire on March 17, 1899 that killed dozens of people, many who had gathered in front of the opulent hotel to watch the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Windsorarcade1902

By 1911, the city’s first mall was on its way out, replaced by office buildings by the 1920s.

The owner had only put up the arcade as kind of a place holder until he had a more profitable use for the property, which happened to be in a very fashionable stretch of the city.

[Top photo: 1905, MCNY; second photo: 1905, MCNY; third photo: Windsor Hotel, 1898, MCNY; fourth photo: 1902, MCNY]

Soft drinks and socializing for GIs in Times Square

May 30, 2016

New York was a welcoming place for sailors and soldiers about the ship out or on furlough during World War II.

Mens Service Center

Besides discounts and freebies when it came to transportation and entertainment, GIs also had special hangouts where they could relax, get a drink, talk, or shoot pool.

One of these was the Pepsi–sponsored Men’s Service Center at 47th Street.

Across town at Grand Central, soldiers had this “Service Men’s Lounge” for relaxing, playing pool and ping pong, and reading in the library.

Making 1970s Midtown a giant pedestrian mall

May 9, 2016

Madisonmall1970sNot a fan of the city’s car-free zones, or  “public plazas” as they are officially called?

Then you would have bristled at an idea Mayor Lindsay cooked up in the 1970s.

The plan was to create a “vast, H-shaped pedestrian mall that would straddle the heart of midtown Manhattan,” wrote the New York Times on December 8, 1971.

Forty-Eighth Street from Broadway to Madison Avenue would go car-free, though “a people-mover of some kind” would eventually be installed (sketch below).

Madisonmallsketch

Both Broadway and Madison Avenue between 45th Street and 57th Street would also be cleared of vehicles and turned into “a network of malls.”

The idea of completely remaking midtown came on the heels of a Lindsay administration experiment, which banned cars on Madison Avenue in 1970 and 1971.

MadisonmallstuffnobodycaresaboutThose temporary bans, inspired by the first Earth Day, were deemed a success by Mayor Lindsay and many pedestrians . . . though merchants weren’t happy to see people playing frisbee, not shopping.

It was the era of what the city called “Green Streets.” Nassau Street was about to become a pedestrian mall. Eighth Street in the West Village and Fifth Avenue in midtown also tried out the car-free thing.

But while the H-shaped mall idea disappeared quickly, Mayor Lindsay stuck to plans for making Madison Avenue into a “Magic Promenade.”

Madison from 44th to 57th Streets would be “a permanent pedestrian mall with a widened street, large trees, many benches, and special lanes for small buses and trucks,” stated a Times article.

Madisonavenuemallnyt

By 1973, however, the idea was dead, thanks to an appeals court ruling that the Transportation department didn’t have the authority to turn a city street into a mall.

Of course, Mayor Bloomberg revived the idea in 2009. His public plazas—with their tables, chairs, and streets blocked off with planters—appear to be successful.

[Top image: streetsblog.org; second image: urbanomnibus.net; third image: stuffnobodycaresabout.com; fourth image: New York Times]

Music and magic at the city’s first roof gardens

May 2, 2016

After the Casino Theater on Broadway and 39th Street opened its spectacular roof garden (below) in the 1880s, a rooftop entertainment craze swept the city through the early 20th century.

Roofgardencasino1898

Now, the “stay-at-homes,” as New Yorkers who couldn’t retreat to the seashore or mountains during the sweltering months were called, had a way to stay cool while socializing.

Madison-Square-Garden-Rooftop-Stanford-White-Murder-NYC

“[W]ithin the last few years skyline theatres and skyline restaurants have sprung up here and there,” wrote Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper in 1904.

Roofgardenamericantheater“[T]heir owners have grown rich with the money which tired, heat-tortured mortals have gladly given in return for the cool breezes and a dainty mid-air supper served on the top of a lofty building.”

[Right: American Theater roof garden, overlooking Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, 1898]

Since this was the Gilded Age, no gaudy expense was spared to draw the rich and powerful (or money-spending tourist) and blow away the competition.

The Casino roof top was actually partially covered with a sliding glass top to keep the party going even when it rained.

Rooftoptheatrenytheatre

The Madison Square Garden rooftop theater (second photo) had 300 tables, multicolored electric lanterns, and the best views in the city, thanks to the Garden’s 300-foot tower.

The New York Theatre, on Broadway and 44th Street, hauled in cherry trees under a glassed-in roof and called the rooftop theater “Cherry Blossom Grove” (above).

Rooftoptheaterparadise

Willie Hammerstein’s Paradise roof garden (above) incorporated the roofs of two separate theater buildings on 42nd Street.

RooftopgardenhotelastormcnyTrue to its name, it had kind of a Coney Island Dreamland magic to it.

Theater roof gardens were soon joined by hotel roof gardens, turning the high-in-the-sky view of the twinkling lights of an electrified city into kind of an entertainment of its own. Perhaps the most famous was the Hotel Astor’s roof garden, above in the early 1900s.

rooftopgardenhotelastor

The hotel, on Broadway and 45th Street, was built in 1904 and its roof was instantly popular—remaining an A-list place to dance, dine, and enjoy the magic of summer night through the Jazz Age.

[Photos: MCNY Digital Collection; second photo of Madison Square Garden from Lost New York via Untapped Cities]

What an 1895 photo of a Midtown shop tells us

April 25, 2016

This is Charles Westphalen and his wife, Anna, with their two young boys outside their German specialty food store on Seventh Avenue and 31st Street.

Charles Westphalen and Co

It’s 1895. Charles, in his 30s, is the son of German immigrants who arrived in New York in the 1830s—part of the first great wave of German immigration that reshaped the city.

The specialty food shop the couple ran was their livelihood for many years. Tea and coffee must have been big items; they’re named on the store awning.

Pennstation1911Jars with cloth tops, canned goods, what looks like fresh fruit and vegetables as well as a crate of soap powder can be seen.

It’s something like the corner bodega of today’s New York but aimed at Germans looking for a taste of their homeland.

You won’t find a trace of Charles Westphalen’s store today, however.

He was forced to move, along with other businesses occupying the block, in the early 1900s to make way for Penn Station.

[Thanks to H.W. for sending this photo of his great-grandfather, great-grandmother, and grandfather (the tow-headed toddler) and sharing his family history.]

The tearjerker Titanic Memorial inside Macy’s

March 28, 2016

StrausportraitWhen the Titanic met its end in the icy Atlantic early in the morning of April 15, 1912, many very rich passengers went down with the ship.

Among them were Ida Straus and her husband, Isidor, the German-born department store magnate who had owned Macy’s since the late 1800s.

Ida and Isidor had an exceptionally loving marriage. After an iceberg ripped the ship and women were being urged into lifeboats, Mrs. Straus refused. “As we have lived, so will we die together,” she reportedly said.

Strausplaquemacys

“They expressed themselves as fully prepared to die, and calmly sat down on steamer chairs on the glass-enclosed Deck A, prepared to meet their fate,” wrote wealthy New Yorker Archibald Gracie, who was with the couple that terrible night.

StraussunheadlineIsidor Straus’ death hit his Macy’s employees hard—which is almost impossible to imagine today, when CEOs are not exactly beloved by their underlings.

“‘Mr. Isidor,’ as he was known, regularly walked the shop floor, a pink carnation boutonnière stuck in the lapel of his dark suit jacket as he greeted workers by name,” according to a 2012 article in The Jewish Daily Forward.

Straus felt a sense of responsibility to his employees. He created a mutual aid society, offered basic health insurance, and built a cafeteria that served up hot (and subsidized) meals.

StraushebrewAfter the news emerged that he was lost at sea, Macy’s employees “contributed what little they could afford to create a memorial plaque for their boss,” and his wife, reported the Forward.

The plaque was ceremoniously unveiled in June 1913 in the Macy’s cafeteria Isidor Straus built.

In attendance were 5,000 employees and the Straus’ surviving family members. A century later, the bronze plaque is still on display at Macy’s in an entrance on 34th Street.

“Their lives were beautiful and their deaths glorious,” reads the inscription on the tablet, described as “a voluntary token of sorrowing employees.”

[Third image: carnegiehall.com; fourth image: a Yiddish songbook “Sacrifices of the Ship Titanic”]

Hauling clothes in the Garment District in 1955

March 21, 2016

Around the time this 1955 photo was taken, the vast majority of clothes for sale in the United States was made in the states too.

Specifically, they were made in the square mile south of Midtown long known as the Garment District.

Garmentdistrict1955

Today, only 5 percent of clothes are made in America. And while you still see factories and showrooms in the Garment District, the narrow, dark streets here compose a ghost town compared to what they were 60 years ago.

At least some faded ads continue to hold their own on former factory buildings.

[Photo: LOC/Al Ravenna]

New York’s most charming holdout buildings

March 21, 2016

Amid New York’s soaring skyline are some lilliputian-size gaps—the low-rise, 19th century buildings whose owners refused to sell when a developer had plans to bulldoze and rebuild next door.

Holdoutbuildingupperwestside

These holdout buildings, now in the shadows of giants, are fun to come across—especially when the architectural style is so vastly different from its newer neighbor.

Holdoutbuildingromanesque

That’s what I love about this photo of a Romanesque Revival former soap shop on Thomas Street in Lower Manhattan, dwarfed by a contemporary high rise.

HoldoutbuildingsSuttonplace

Same goes for these two stately townhouses on Sutton Place. Perhaps they were mansions in their day, but now clearly overwhelmed by the two pre- and post-war luxury apartment houses were built on either side.

Holdoutbuildinglexington

This townhouse on Lexington and 57th Street looks like it’s being subsumed. The bigger building is the former Allerton Hotel for Women, built in 1923.

The banner advertisement on the townhouse suggests it’s the property of the larger hotel.

Holdoutbuildingflatiron

A lovely three-story remnant of old New York has withstood the test of time in the East 20s off Broadway, sandwiched between two 1920s loft-style buildings. What stories it must have to tell!

Subway riders at the new Grand Central Terminal

February 29, 2016

Are these men decked out in dress coats and bowler hats ordinary commuters—or  are they officials marking the opening of a subway entrance in the “new” Grand Central Terminal?

Grandcentralterminalnew

It’s hard to tell. But here they are captured in a moment in 1913, the year the new terminal opened and just nine years after the subway made its debut as well.


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