Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

A curious detective agency sign on Ninth Street

August 22, 2016

Appearing on the facade of Randall House, an apartment building at 63 East Ninth Street, is this very noir-ish and mysterious sign.

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It’s for the William J. Burns Detective Agency. Who was William J. Burns? Known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” Burns started out as a Secret Service Agent and then became head of the FBI in the 1920s before founding his own detective agency.

“His exploits made national news, the gossip columns of New York newspapers, and the pages of detective magazines, in which he published ‘true’ crime stories based on his exploits,” states the FBI website.

It’s still a mystery why this sign is on Randall House—an otherwise ordinary residential building in Greenwich Village. As far as I know, it’s the only sign of its kind in New York City.

A massive menu at the Manhattan Beach Hotel

August 18, 2016

Despite the hopes of its Gilded Age developer, the spectacular oceanside resort of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn never developed the cachet of old money Newport or elegant Long Branch.

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But the upper-class guests who made the Queen Anne–style Manhattan Beach Hotel a premier sand and surf destination after it opened in 1877 certainly dined well.

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This menu from the 1905 summer season reveals hundreds of dishes, from shellfish to soups to salads to “Long Island vegetables,” perhaps a nod to Kings  County’s vegetable-producing past.

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Calf’s head, calf brains, sweetbreads—the hotel guests liked their organ meats. Dessert doesn’t disappoint either. Look, they offer charlotte russe, a much-missed lost food of New York City.

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By the time this menu (view it in its four-page entirety) was printed, Manhattan Beach’s glory days were behind it.

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The enormous resort was demolished in 1912, not long before its rivals, the Brighton Beach Hotel and the Oriental Hotel, also met the wrecking ball.

[Menu: NYPL; photo: Getty Images]

Manhattan street names on tenement corners

August 12, 2016

If there’s an actual name for these cross streets carved or affixed to the corners of some city buildings, I don’t know what it is.

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But they’re fun to spot anyway. I’ve never seen one quite like this decorative sign on an otherwise unremarkable tenement at 169th Street and Broadway.

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Fancy, right? This one at Horatio and Washington Streets is also a notch above the usual corner address sign, which is typically carved into the facade in a plain font.

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A good example of the traditional style is this one below, worn and so faded it’s hard to see the letters, at Mott and Bleecker Streets.

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I’ve heard that these street signs are up high because they were meant to be seen from elevated trains. But there were no trains running on Mott and Bleecker, or Horatio and Washington.

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Or West End Avenue and 82nd Street, for that matter. This is a beauty of a sign that’s survived the elements on the circa-1895 facade of former Public School 9, now strangely called the Mickey Mantle School.

Some of my favorites are carved into tenements in the East Village. And of course, the loveliest in the city is at Hudson and Beach Streets.

Discount store Korvettes lives on in the subway

August 8, 2016

Remember the faded and forgotten Gimbels sign inside the 33rd Street PATH station? Turns out another relic of New York’s department store past is hidden away there as well.

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Inside a closed-off construction area along a walkway connecting the PATH to the Herald Square subway station is this sign for the underground entrance to Korvettes.

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What was Korvettes? New Yorkers who lived in the metro area anytime between the 1950s and the early 1980s know: it was a popular discount retailer with several locations in the city, including one at Sixth Avenue and 34th Street (top photo).

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Korvettes went bust in 1980—but this Reagan-era sign was never taken down, even as new retailers moved into its former site, now called the Herald Center.

saks34thstreet1920sThe Herald Center has quite a retailing history. Before Korvettes moved there in the 1960s and the building was sheathed behind a Brutalist facade, it was a lovely Beaux-Arts building constructed in 1902 for Saks’s Herald Square store (left).

(Part of the old Saks facade came back into view last year during construction—a sweet site to behold.)

Korvettes had a strong run—I’d put it above Crazy Eddie but below its Herald Square neighbors like Gimbels and Abraham & Straus in the rankings of defunct city department stores.

This 1970s TV commercial will take you back to the days when Korvettes was big. Thanks to ENY reader B.R. for alerting me to the sign!

[Top photo: John J. Meola/Wikipedia; second photo: Alamy; third photo: Getty Images; fifth image: Staten Island Advance, 1971]

1930s posters pleading for “planned housing”

August 8, 2016

Disease, fire, crime, infant mortality—could better housing conditions make a dent in these social and environmental problems plaguing Depression-era New York City?

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Fiorello La Guardia thought so. After taking office in 1934, Mayor La Guardia made what was gently called “slum clearance” a priority and argued that the “submerged middle class” needed better housing.

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Tear down the old, build up the new!” he thundered on his WNYC radio show. “Down with rotten antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels, down with disease, down with firetraps, let in the sun, let in the sky, a new day is dawning, a new life, a new America.”

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La Guardia wasn’t necessarily being melodramatic. Much of the housing stock for poor and working class residents in New York consisted of tenements that were shoddily built to accommodate thousands of newcomers in the second half of the 19th century.

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By the 1930s, many tenements were falling apart. And it’s safe to assume that not all of them adhered to the requirements of the Tenement Act of 1901, which mandated adequate ventilation and a bathroom in every apartment.

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To help make his case for housing improvement, La Guardia created the Mayor’s Poster Project, part of the Civil Works Administration (and later under the thumb of the WPA’s Federal Art Project).

LaguardiaradioArtists designed and produced posters that advocated for better housing—as well as other health and social issues, from eating right to getting checked for syphilis.

La Guardia achieved his goals. Under his administration, the first city public housing development, simply named the First Houses, began accepting families in today’s East Village in 1935.

The mayor—and his posters—set the stage for the boom in public housing that accelerated after World War II. Whether these developments helped ease the city’s social ills is still a contentious topic.

The Library of Congress has a worth-checking-out collection of hundreds of WPA posters from around the nation.

The mystery of these Washington Place fire relics

July 18, 2016

On a quiet walk down Washington Place just east of Sheridan Square, some unusual symbols came into view.

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Three of the lovely Federal-style 1830s townhouses on the south side of the street had small plaques on their facades, each with a different image and letters.

FiremarkFAhoseOne featured an eagle and the words “Eagle Hose No. 2.” Another depicted what looked like a fire pump steam engine. A third had a hose attached to a barrel and the initials F.A.

What was all this fire imagery about? These Fire marks, as they’re officially called, were produced by fire insurance companies in the 19th century.

“Possibly the latter day reader never heard of a fire mark, but they could be found on the front of many buildings in the city before 1870,” explains a 1928 New York Times article.

Firemarkeaglehoseno2“Those were the days of the volunteer fire department, and the fire marks were posted by insurance companies to make known that a reward was ready for the firemen should they save the building from destruction by flames.”

“The fire mark might be a symbol cut in stone, a cabalistic iron letter or some other design of metal,” continued the Times.

Fire marks had other uses, like serving as advertising for insurance companies. They may also have “minimized the amount of damage to a property as the firefighters did their job.”

FiremarkenginepumpIf firefighters saw a fire mark, they may have been more careful when entering a property and extinguishing the fire,” states nycfiremuseum.org.

Plus, “a fire mark may have deterred an arsonist from maliciously destroying a property. The fire mark signaled that the owner would be compensated for damages and that law enforcement would likely attempt to find the arsonist.”

Fire marks began disappearing after 1865, when the city’s 124 volunteer engine companies, hose companies, and hook and ladder companies were replaced by the professional (and paid) Metropolitan Fire Department—which was supposed to fight fires without regard to whether the property was insured or not.

firemarkvolunteerfirefighterThey became collectors’ items in the 20th century. “There are still a few of these fire marks embedded in the walls of byways of the old city,” wrote the Times in 1928. “Yet the extent of rebuilding on Manhattan Island must soon sweep them away.”

Were these fire marks bought at antique shops and affixed to the facades by later homeowners to give their townhouses more authenticity?

One owner I spoke to on Washington Place, who offered some backstory on these relics, believes they were put up in the 19th century.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverThe NYC Fire Museum maintains a photo gallery of fire marks to browse and terrific images, like this Currier & Ives depiction of a volunteer fireman in the mid-1800s.

[Many thanks to Washington Place townhouse owner and enthusiast R.R. for filling me in on the history of these remnants of 19th century New York City.]

For more about the early days of Gotham’s professional firefighters, check out The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, available for preorder now and in bookstores September 27.]

The globe and quill in the Meatpacking District

July 14, 2016

Who would build the headquarters of a publishing company on far West 13th Street at the turn of the century—amid the warehouses and cold storage spaces of what was then the center of New York’s produce, meat, and dairy markets?

Colliersbuildingglassdoor

Peter Collier did. Collier was the founder of popular Collier’s magazine, which covered “fiction, fact, sensation, wit, humor, and news” and ran some noteworthy authors (Hemingway, Fitzgerald) and groundbreaking muckraking pieces too.

Collierscover1921Collier put his company offices and printing plant (he published books too) in this neoclassical building at 416-424 West 13th Street, constructed from 1901 to 1902.

West 13th Street here was Astor-owned land, and Collier’s son was married to an Astor daughter.

In the 1920s, 700 people worked in the company headquarters (including e.e. cummings), cranking out thousands of books and periodicals a day.

But the Collier company decamped from the building in 1929. It did turns as a General Electric warehouse, girdle factory, and moving company home base.

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More than a century later, in the revived and revamped Meatpacking District, Collier’s stately and inspiring globe logo, flanked by a quill pen and fountain pen and topped by a torch, represent a very different West 13th Street.

[Top image: Glassdoor.com]

The curious fireplace in McSorley’s back room

July 11, 2016

Mcsorleys2016McSorley’s Bar on East Seventh Street in the East Village is the keeper of wonderful old New York relics.

There are framed newspaper clippings from the 19th century, Harry Houdini’s handcuffs, a collection of wishbones left by soldiers who never returned from World War I, and of course, that pot-bellied stove that has kept generations of drinkers toasty.

In the back room is another curious artifact: a fireplace that spells out “Bible House” in gold capital letters under the wood mantel.

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What was Bible House? In the late 19th and early 20th century, you wouldn’t have to ask.

This six-story building at Astor Place and East Ninth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues was the imposing headquarters of the American Bible Society, an organization devoted to printing and distributing millions of bibles.

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Bible House, the city’s first cast-iron building, went up in 1853, replacing the group’s older headquarters on Nassau Street.

Along with the Astor Library (now The Public Theater) and the newly formed Cooper Institute, Bible House helped make Astor Place a hub of intellectual and literary activity.

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Because of its size and appearance, Bible House became a tourist attraction of its own in the late 19th century. The printing rooms inside ultimately cranking out 77 million bibles. Yet as the neighborhood’s fortunes slipped in the ensuing decades, so did the building.

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In 1956, after Bible House was torn down and replaced by a Cooper Union building, McSorley’s apparently salvaged this artifact, preserving it amid the sawdust floors and dusty frames in the bar’s back room.

Hat tip again to Dean at the History Author Show for this story! [Third image: King’s Handbook of New York via the Village Alliance; fifth image: MCNY]

Four ghost store signs in the Village and Brooklyn

July 7, 2016

In a city that changes as rapidly as Gotham, ghost signs abound. You know these phantom signs, left behind by a building’s previous tenant and never replaced by the new one—if there even is a new tenant.

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That seems to be the case with this wonderfully preserved Meier & Oelhaf Marine Repair sign on Christopher and Weehawken Streets. The company occupied 177 Christopher from 1920 to 1984.

It’s been an empty and eerie presence for 30 years, a clue to Christopher Street’s maritime past. Maybe it won’t be unoccupied for long; a different sign says the ground floor is for rent.

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Around the corner on a lonely stretch of West Street, this coffee sign remains high above two empty, rundown storefronts—one of which was presumably a lively coffee shop not long ago.

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A store solely devoted to school supplies? The old-school signage can be seen behind the new awning for the Pure Perfection Beauty Salon on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights.

You don’t come across these too often anymore, a store name spelled out in tile amid a geometric design at the entrance. But it’s a charming old-timey New York thing.

Ghostsignshecht's

The people who ran Hecht’s, once at 363 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, must have agreed. The antique store there now, Sterling Place, luckily didn’t do away with it.

Random sightings of old phone exchange signs

July 4, 2016

The traditional two-letter phone number prefix was officially abandoned in the 1960s.

From time to time, as readers of this site know, they sometimes reveal themselves in faded ads and randomly found signs, like these two below.

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I’m not exactly sure what an asbestos curtain was, but American Stage Equipment sold them from an East Harlem office South Bronx office.

The CY exchange is new to me, but according to this guide, it stands for cypress, which places it in the Bronx. The sign hangs in an antiques shop in Brooklyn.

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ST could have stood for stagg or sterling in Brooklyn, stillwell in Queens, or Stuyvesant in Manhattan. It was found on a Flatiron building, so Stuyvesant is a good bet.


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