Archive for the ‘Midtown’ Category

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).

An 1871 stable hiding on a modern Midtown block

June 8, 2020

East 40th Street between Third Avenue and Lexington is a stretch of East Midtown right out of Hollywood casting—a block of gleaming glass office towers dwarfing modest hotels and apartment houses.

Laying low on the south side of the street is an unlikely post-Civil War survivor: a colorful, confection-like former stable complete with dormer windows, a slate mansard roof, and red brick entryways.

How did this dollhouse of a stable end up here?

It helps to imagine this Midtown block back in the 1870s, when the upper reaches of fashionable Murray Hill attracted wealthy men like Jonathan W. Allen.

Allen, a broker (presumably of real estate, as these ads suggest), lived on East 42nd Street, according to the Historic Districts Council (HDC). At the time, 42nd Street close to Fifth Avenue consisted of rowhouses, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

In 1871, Allen wanted a private carriage house close to his own home, a place where he could keep his horses and also have upstairs living quarters for a groom.

In the later 19th century, private stables were usually built on less pricey side streets near (but not too near) a rich owner’s home, often grouped together so some blocks became stable rows, per the LPC.

A builder named Charles Hadden constructed the delightful stable for him. We don’t know much about Allen, but it’s hard to imagine that the lilliputian carriage house didn’t bring a smile to his face.

“This unusual, two-story building with its mansard roof, large dormers, and delicate iron cresting is a rare survivor from that period of New York’s history when horses were a vital part of everyday life and their care and housing were an integral part of the development of the city,” stated the HDC.

The stable stayed in Allen’s family until 1919; it remained a stable until at least 1928, per the LPC. (Top right, 1928)

By the 1940s it was converted to commercial use. Though today it’s a little rough around the edges, this burst of color and energy deserves to be celebrated simply for evading the wrecking ball that decimated similar carriage houses in the shadow of Grand Central Terminal.

[Third image: MCNY x2010.7.1.3387]

An 1897 building and a changing West 57th Street

June 1, 2020

When Lee’s Art Shop closed in 2016, New Yorkers lost an interesting and unusual place to buy art supplies and crafts.

What was also lost? An excuse to visit interesting and unusual 220 West 57th Street.

Lee’s occupied the four-story building since 1975. Completed in 1897, the building reflects the rise and fall of this stretch of 57th Street as both a cultural hub and a point along Manhattan’s “Automobile Row.”

It’s not easy to recognize now, as 57th Street is undergoing luxurification with new offices and residential towers. But in the late 19th century, the street first took shape as an artistic center.

Early apartment residences that catered to artists and musicians went up, such as The Osborne across the street.

Studio buildings were also built, joined by the Art Student League (also across the street), Carnegie Hall (a half-block east), and numerous galleries and music showrooms.

So it made sense when the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which included architects, decided to build their headquarters in the late 1890s on West 57th Street, a budding center of the arts and creativity.

The ASCE clubhouse, complete with reading rooms, a library, and an auditorium, opened its doors in November 1897. (Above left, in 1897, and at right, in 1903.) Reviews lauded the building as interesting, artistic, and harmonious.

One reviewer called it “a beautiful example of French Renaissance in Indiana limestone richly carved,” per the Landmarks Preservation Commission report in 2008.

In 1917, after an annex had been added, the ASCE moved to West 39th Street and began leasing 220 West 57th Street.

The businesses that rented and altered the space in 1918 were also a reflection of the industry that encompassed Broadway and West 57th Street: cars.

Early in the century, Broadway between roughly Times Square and West 66th Street was the city’s “automobile row.”

“By 1910, there were dozens of automobile-related businesses, including many small automobile or body manufacturers, lining Broadway particularly between West 48th Street and Columbus Circle,” stated the LPC report.

Ajax Rubber Company, which made tires, moved into 220. The ground floor was renovated with big showroom windows, and then the ground floor was subleased to Stearns-Knight Automobiles, a luxury car maker based in Cleveland.

Automobile Row lasted into the 1980s. But by the late 1920s, 220 West 57th changed hands again.

It became a Schrafft’s, the casual lunchroom-restaurant chain with franchises all over the city (and such a storied New York business in the 1940s and 1950s, it even made it into a J.D. Salinger story).

Schrafft’s served its much-loved sandwiches, ice cream, and even alcohol (after Prohibition was lifted) for almost 50 years here, catering to shoppers and theater-goers until the chain’s better days had passed and stores shut down in the 1970s.

Lee’s took the space in 1975, later expanding to all four floors. Remnants of the previous tenants remained, according to Christopher Gray, who visited the space in 2000.

“But all around there are tattered fragments of the 1897 building: delicate plaster friezes of floral ornament, wooden trim and gilt decoration,” wrote Gray in The New York Times. “And a Schrafft’s devotee could recognize the restaurant’s 1928 brass and iron staircase, and the marble trim around the second-floor elevator.”

Twenty years after Gray’s visit, Lee’s is gone, and the building sits empty. What’s to become of the delicate limestone structure designed to fit into West 57th’s artistic and then automobile ethos? There’s been talk of new development, but it remains to be seen.

[Third image: American Architect and Building News via Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; fourth image: Landmarks Preservation Committee Report; sixth image: Alamy; seventh image: LOC]

The painter who captured the soul of New York

May 4, 2020

New York right now feels like it’s at a crossroads. People are fearful of walking the streets with the threat of a virus literally in the air. Subway problems, homelessness…the city doesn’t always seem to be working.

To restore your faith in Gotham, take a look at these paintings by Alfred S. Mira, whose vivid street scenes of the 1930s and 1940s city capture the life, passion, and activity inherent in New York’s soul.

Mira wasn’t a native New Yorker. Born in Italy in 1900, he came to New York as a boy with an “insatiable desire to draw,” as he put it.

Despite his parents’ misgivings, he embarked on a long career as an artist, painting cityscapes (many of his own neighborhood, Greenwich Village) depicting the day-to-day street life New Yorkers relate to and thrive on.

His style is sometimes Impressionist, but his vision of New York was one of realism. He painted the city “the way busy people see it…None of those breathtaking shots cameramen contrive of towers and infinity, which no New Yorker sees in actuality,” he said.

Mira’s paintings capture something real and remarkable about city life—the stunning palette of colors from buildings and roads, the hidden views from el trains and windows, the ordinary exchanges New Yorkers have on sidewalks with one another.

“The lure of the outdoors always attracted me, especially the city streets with their movements, color and depth—they were the things that inspired me and which I painted as they looked and as I felt them,” he said.

This site has featured Mira’s work before, and it’s the right time to present him again. Let his work remind you of what makes New York great and why you don’t ever want to leave.

Is this the city’s oldest Croton manhole cover?

April 27, 2020

Manhattan still has several manhole covers that mark the Croton Aqueduct, the 1842 engineering masterpiece that fed fresh water to the 1840s metropolis from a series of gravity-powered pipes and city receiving reservoirs.

Dated 1862, this one hiding in plain sight on the grimy corner of Eighth Avenue and 40th Street is thought to be the oldest in the city. It’s might also be the most southerly one, since the Croton manhole cover once on Jersey Street in Noho has disappeared.

But unless it was removed recently (and that’s certainly possible), an almost identical cover, also dated 1862, lies underfoot in East Harlem’s Thomas Jefferson Park, at First Avenue and 112th Streets.

In the middle of the biggest public health crisis of the 21st century, it’s a fitting time to take a moment and celebrate what the Croton Aqueduct did for New York City: it brought clean drinking water to an unsanitary city where fresh water was hard to find.

Before Croton opened, most residents relied on street corner “tea water” pumps, which were often polluted.

What New York did in 1947 to evade an epidemic

March 16, 2020

In February 1947, an American importer named Eugene Le Bar boarded a bus in Mexico with his wife; the two were bound for New York City. That evening, he developed a headache and neck pain. Two days later, a rash developed.

After arriving in Manhattan on March 1, the Le Bars registered at a Midtown hotel.

“Although he was not feeling well, he did a little sightseeing and also walked through one of the large department stores,” explained a New York Times article published later that year and written by Commissioner of Health Israel Weinstein.

Four days later, Le Bar was in Bellevue Hospital, unsure of what he had. He raged with fever and was covered in dark red bumps, similar to chicken pox.

He was transferred to another hospital, Willard Parker Hospital at East 16th Street and the East River (below, in 1935), which treated communicable diseases. He died there on March 10, and it was only during an autopsy did doctors discover he had smallpox—the fearsome scourge that killed up to a third of victims until a vaccine was developed in the 19th century.

Le Bar’s case was the first appearance of smallpox in New York City since 1939. “The occasional case of smallpox had been seen in the area for decades since the last big outbreak in 1875, which had killed 2,000 New Yorkers,” stated a 2004 edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

This new case wasn’t an isolated one. It quickly spread to two other people, one at Bellevue and the other at Willard Parker.

From there, about a dozen more people who’d been in contact with the first three smallpox victims developed the disease.

Realizing that the outbreak had to be stopped, city officials sprang into action. First, all hospital staffers and anyone who may have had contact with the infected individuals were vaccinated or revaccinated, explained this post from Virology Blog.

And on April 4, “facing the possibility of a genuine epidemic, Mayor William O’Dwyer ordered that virtually the entire city, or 6.3 million people, be vaccinated or revaccinated, a process that for three weeks caused enormous lines to snake around every hospital, police precinct, and 60 special health stations,” recalled the New York Daily News in 2001.

New York didn’t have enough doses of the vaccine on hand, so O’Dwyer met with the heads of pharmaceutical companies and asked for their help manufacturing millions of vaccines, which they accomplished.

“When a second person died from the disease on April 13, the Mayor asked all 7.8 million New Yorkers to be vaccinated,” stated Virology Blog.

“At this announcement, the city shifted into crisis mode, with contributions by police, fire, health departments, and hospitals. The campaign slogan was ‘Be sure, be safe, get vaccinated!’”

An estimated 5-6 million people were vaccinated in the city until early May, after which the campaign was halted because the outbreak appeared to be contained.

Is there anything here to learn from to tackle the coronavirus pandemic? I’m not sure; it was a different time, and a vaccine already existed. Let’s hope coronavirus is contained by May, just like smallpox was in 1947.

 

[Top image: Vaccine line in Morrisania, Bronx, by Life magazine; second image: New York Daily News; third image: NYPL; fourth image: New York Daily News; fifth image: New York Times; sixth image: Broadway showgirls getting jabbed, Life magazine; seventh image: New York Times]

Defunct city hospitals and their amazing buildings

March 9, 2020

These days, New York’s hospitals are consolidating and shrinking. But in the late 19th century city, hospital building was on the upswing—inspired by a rapidly growing population, the benevolent spirit of Gilded Age society, and a better sense of how to treat disease and illness.

“There are nearly 80 of these ‘inns on the highway of life where suffering humanity finds alleviation and sympathy,’ and many of them are among the largest and most magnificent buildings in the city.” stated King’s Handbook of New York City in 1892.

Recently the New York Academy of Medicine digitized 118 postcards of New York City hospitals. They’re part of the Robert Matz Hospital Postcard Collection, which includes about 2,000 postcards—many of 19th and early 20th century hospitals that have either been demolished and forgotten, repurposed for other uses, or are still (partially at least) standing, but with a different name.

Hahnemann Hospital (top image) is one that no New Yorker today would recognize. This spectacular hospital building opened in 1878 at Park Avenue between 67th and 68th Streets. “In addition to its free beds, the hospital provides a quiet and comforting home for the sick and suffering of all classes under homeopathic treatment,” stated King’s. It was sold in 1919 and an apartment building went up on this site in the 1920s.

City Hospital, on what was then called Blackwell’s Island, is another stunning structure (second image)—built by inmates serving time in the island’s prisons. James Renwick, Jr. designed the building, which opened in 1861. Closed in the 1930s and abandoned, City (later called Charity) hospital was bulldozed in 1994.

In 1874, an English surgeon described The Roosevelt Hospital, at 59th Street and 10th Avenue (third image), as “Without exception the most complete medical charity in every respect,” according to King’s. It owes its existence to James H. Roosevelt, who left his estate to create “a hospital for the reception and relief of sick and diseased persons, and for its permanent endowment.”

Today, what eventually became St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital has been rebranded Mount Sinai West. I believe most of these original buildings are gone, but the early surgery theater still remains.

Morningside Heights’ Woman’s Hospital (above) moved to this spot near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1906. It merged with St. Luke’s Hospital in 1952, though this incredible Gothic building remained until the mid-1970s.

Originally located on Madison Avenue and 29th Street and then Park Avenue and 51st Street, Women’s Hospital was founded by surgeon Dr. Marion Sims—whose reputation has been called into question and a Fifth Avenue statue dedicated to Sims removed in 2018.

[All postcards belong to the New York Academy of Medicine/Robert Matz Hospital Postcard Collection]

When Lenny Bruce hit the stage at Carnegie Hall

February 24, 2020

Fifty-nine years ago in February 1961, thousands of avid fans trudged through 20 inches of snow to Carnegie Hall to see comedian Lenny Bruce—in a show that was recorded and released in a three-record set, The Carnegie Hall Concert.

This famous show, “was the moment that an obscure yet rapidly rising young comedian named Lenny Bruce chose to give one of the greatest performances of his career….The performance contained in this album is that of a child of the jazz age,” wrote Albert Goldman in the subsequent LP’s liner notes.

The Carnegie Hall concert was one of this Long Island native’s most iconic New York City moments, perhaps only surpassed by his arrest at Cafe au Go Go on Bleecker Street in 1964 on charges that “his nightclub act was obscene,” reported the New York Times.

Bruce had already been arrested in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago, thanks to this “sick comedian’s” profanity-laced act.

He went on trial in Manhattan Criminal Court and was found guilty…only to be pardoned by New York State in 2003, which was 37 years after his death by speedball.

Bruce’s voice and style inspired a generation of comics. But would a so-called indecent, free-form comic like Bruce be seen as a free speech icon if he was making the rounds of clubs today?

[Top photo: YouTube; second photo: Wikipedia]

The most dazzling luxury apartment ads of 1935

February 24, 2020

It’s 1935, and you’re a New Yorker who needs a new apartment. The Depression is still raging, but your fortunes are on the upswing, and you’re thinking luxurious digs in Midtown or on the East or West Sides near Central Park.

Looks like you’ve got lots of options. The July 27, 1935 New Yorker (selling for 15 cents!) contains many classy apartment ads toward the back pages. These are the most amenity-packed ads for buildings that still exist and are still quite luxe.

The “most distinguished address in America” is quite a claim, but One Fifth Avenue beside the Washington Arch at Washington Square Park is still a beautiful building. This Art Deco gem was built in 1927.

I’m not sure the Parc Vendome of today still has a swimming pool. But it is an impressive fortress of a building fronting West 57th Street. (And the phone exchange: Circle for Columbus Circle?)

The El Dorado continues to shine on Central Park West, its two towers as impressive as other iconic West Side buildings like the Dakota and the San Remo.

Ten Park Avenue at 34th Street might not sound spectacular. But in the 1930s, this building maintained the hotel-style feel of many early apartment houses. Room service is available, and this one-bedroom pad is only $1300…per year, I believe.

“The trend is toward the river,” proclaims this ad for Southgate, a “fashionable colony” of five Bing & Bing buildings on East 51st and East 52nd Street designed by Emery Roth.

“Set apart from the rest of the town” for “smart New Yorkers”…I’m sold!