Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

The mystery of the shuttered Italian restaurant with a wonderful vintage store sign

August 15, 2022

Cicciaro’s Italian Restaurante (their spelling, not mine) looks like it’s been closed for ages, the steel grates over the small storefront locked shut and layered with graffiti.

I couldn’t find any clues about this literal hole in the wall at 47 Market Street, which still occupies the ground floor of a tenement built in 1886, and is next door to a former boarding stable for horses that operated in the 1890s.

But thanks to Ephemeral readers, I now know that this authentic-looking Italian spot and its spot-on 1970s-ish sign is actually a fake—it’s a creation for a TV crime drama film set.

City on Fire should be on Apple TV at some point in the near future. The production crew did a nice job, the old-school sign fooled me!

A Yorkville faded sign with a two-letter old phone exchange

August 5, 2022

The Little Wolf Cabinet Shop is a longtime fixture on the upper reaches of First Avenue at about 82nd Street. The shop also has another space on a nearby side street—and it’s the sign above this space that sparked my interest.

An old New York City phone exchange! The number of these pre-1970s exchanges still visible on signs and in ads is dwindling fast. I’d actually photographed this one for a 2011 ENY post, and the sign is, sadly, much more faded 11 years later.

RE stood for Regent, a Yorkville/Upper East Side exchange. I still haven’t figured out what Regent was though, and why the name was used. Could Regent have been a nearby hotel or theater?

Questions about the city’s old phone exchanges always generate insightful comments. This link will take you to some of the older posts delving into the mysteries of these two-letter exchanges.

The mystery of the mermaid on East 23rd Street

July 28, 2022

At the northeast corner of Third Avenue and 23rd Street—a busy intersection at the border of Kips Bay—stands a squat, two-story building.

With a tan-brick facade and cookie-cutter rectangular shape, the building is empty of ground floor tenants, which not long ago included unglamorous neighborhood shops like a mattress outlet and cell phone store.

The one distinguishing factor of this building is how undistinguished it is in a neighborhood where restored cast-iron commercial spaces share the streets with low-rise walkups, tenements, and modern high-rise residential towers.

But there’s something mysterious above one of the empty store entrances on the 23rd Street side: a circular medallion of a mermaid, or siren, swimming among fish on the waves of the sea. She has a face of contentment, her eyes closed, her long hair free beneath a three-pointed crown.

The medallion is surrounded by brickwork that enhances its beauty. But where did it come from? The building doesn’t appear to date back farther than the late 1950s, while the mermaid seems to be in the artistic style of the late 19th or early 20th century.

It’s possible that the mermaid came from an earlier building either knocked down or renovated into the squat postwar structure. Previous turn-of-the-century businesses at the address—either 301 Third Avenue or 201-205 East 23rd Street—include a bank, the New York College of Dentistry, according to Songlines, the New-York Ophthalmic Hospital, and the office of a D. Peraza, who sold powders and tonics via periodical ads of dubious quality.

The mermaid seems like a much better fit for an entertainment venue—a theater perhaps, or a music hall. But this corner is a little to the east of the city’s Gilded Age/early 1900s theater district and Madison Square Garden. Maybe home to a German singing society? New York’s Little Germany, or Kleindutschland, extended from the East Village into the Gramercy area at the time.

It’s the only ornamentation of any kind on the building, yet it’s easy to miss, and it isn’t the kind of strange loveliness you don’t expect to find on an otherwise utilitarian building.

The mermaid medallion must have a good backstory; at the very least, it’s one of those architectural mysteries that make New York City streets so fascinating.

The Automat is gone—but a faded Automat ad still remains in the Garment District

July 25, 2022

The last Horn & Hardart Automat in New York City, at 200 East 42nd Street, shut down in 1991—its stainless steel vending machines that dispensed everything from hot coffee to meatloaf to pie unceremoniously carted away.

That was 31 years ago. But the ghosts of the 40 to 50 Automats that once fed Gotham still haunt the imaginations of New Yorkers old enough to remember them—as well as those of us who wish we could hop into a time machine and experience these very democratic (and all architecturally different) food establishments.

Automat at 1089 Sixth Avenue, 1939

(Why democratic? Take it from a 1933 rhyme printed in the New York Sun that went like this: said the technocrat/to the plutocrat/to the autocrat/and the Democrat/let’s all go eat at the Automat!)

Macy’s own Automat at 425 Seventh Avenue, 1929

So it’s wonderful to come across a faded ad for a Broadway Automat on the side of a building on West 38th Street, within the borders of the Herald Square shopping district as well as the old Garment District.

This second image of the faded ad (above) comes from Frank Mastropolo, the author of Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York’s Past, which hits Amazon and bookstores today. Mastropolo got access to the roof of the building next door for this amazing shot, which fills in the blanks as to where this Automat was located.

The Automat at 401 Fifth Avenue, 1950s

The ad is in surprisingly good shape, considering it’s been exposed to the elements for four or five decades, at least. Let’s hope it sticks around!

[Second, third, and fifth images: NYPL Digital Collections; fourth image: Frank Mastropolo, Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York’s Past]

What makes Central Park’s “whisper bench” so unusual and enchanting

June 10, 2022

Some parts of Central Park encourage loud noise—the ballfields, the playgrounds, and the areas under Bethesda Terrace and certain bridges, where buskers play to enthusiastic crowds.

Other sections call for quiet and softness, and park visitors know to lower their voices. That’s where the whisper bench, inside the lush and lovely Shakespeare Garden, comes in.

Officially known as the Charles B. Stover bench, this smooth granite half-circle earned its nickname “because a whisper spoken into one end of the bench can be heard on the other side,” explains the Central Park Conservatory.

The 20-foot bench that curls inward at the ends is unlike any of the 10,000 mostly wood benches spread out across Central Park. It’s also one of the park’s most enchanting places to sit, surrounded by four shady acres of flowers, herbs, and trees mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

The Shakespeare Garden was a favorite of Charles Stover, who served as city parks commissioner in the 1910s. Stover was a longtime advocate for New York’s parks and playgrounds, according to the Conservatory.

The bench bearing his name was dedicated in 1936, two decades after the Garden was established. Since then, it’s been popular with curious park-goers who test out the acoustics, as well as those seeking peace and contemplation. It’s also a romantic setting, so expect couples to stop and sit close.

There’s another place in Manhattan also famous for whispers: the “whispering gallery” of Grand Central Terminal. It’s on the lower level of the station. Supposedly if you stand against the wall and whisper, your words can be heard across the space thanks to the vaulted ceilings.

This Art Deco skyscraper on 57th Street rightfully celebrates itself

May 9, 2022

The Fuller Building, on Madison Avenue and 57th Street, has racked up some impressive accomplishments.

Topping out at 40 floors, this 1929 masterpiece was one of New York’ first “mixed use” buildings, with the lower floors boasting high ceilings and a distinct design to attract galleries to 57th Street’s active Jazz Age art scene, according to The City Review.

Art is outside the building as well. Above the entrance is a sculpture of workmen framed around a clock and a relief of the cityscape. Construction themes are reflected on the elevators, and the upper floors feature geometric patterns on the facade.

With so much to boast about, why shouldn’t the Fuller Building have large mosaic medallions of itself embossed in the lobby?

Sure “AD 1929” sounds like the owners expect the tower to be in a museum someday. But this icon has every reason to honor itself and decorate the lobby floor with love letters to its own greatness.

[Second image: structurae.net]

Just how old is the lovely stained glass ceiling at Veniero’s pasticceria?

May 2, 2022

There’s a lot to love about Veniero’s, the cafe and bakery on East 11th Street since 1894. First and foremost are the pastries, but also the tin ceiling, the old-school glass bakery counters, and the wonderful pink and green neon sign on the facade.

But what I noticed for the first time during a recent visit for gelato was the spectacular stained glass panels spanning the length of the ceiling, with their unusual red, gold, and green floral motifs.

I knew they must have been in the cafe for decades, and I wanted to know just how long and where they came from. On one hand, a 1990 New York Times article about bakeries in Manhattan has it that the stained glass was only installed in 1984.

“The only change over the years [at Veniero’s] has been the addition six years ago of an adjoining warm enclave, with a ceiling of stained-glass panels and the original pressed tin,” the article stated.

However, Veniero’s own website suggests the stained glass dates to the 1930s. During the Depression, owner Michael Veniero left the day-to-day management of the store to his cousin Frank.

“Under Frank’s leadership and eventually ownership, Veniero’s evolved into what it is today,” the site says. Frank “filled his new kitchen with Italian bakers and decorated his new cafe with imported Neapolitan glass that still gracefully adorns our ceiling today.”

This 1850s Lower Manhattan image might be one of the oldest street photos

May 2, 2022

In the 1850s, New York City’s population reached 590,000. Central Park was mostly an idea, the urban city barely existed beyond 42nd Street, and mass transit meant taking a streetcar pulled by horses.

And at some point in that decade, a dry goods store employee turned daguerreotype studio owner captured this remarkable image of a stretch of Greenwich Street, with more than a dozen men standing with their hands in their pockets beside wood and brick storefronts.

The photographer was Abraham Bogardus. From the 1840s through the 1860s, Bogardus ran his own studio in various locations in Lower Manhattan. Two of those locations were on Greenwich Street: first at 217 Greenwich, and then at 229 Greenwich, according to the International Center for Photography (ICP).

Like the other daguerreotype studio owners congregated around Lower Broadway in those decades, Bogardus mostly did portraits. Considering how popular daguerreotypes were at the time with the public, he likely made a good living.

Yet something must have compelled him to step outside his studio door and capture what he saw, and intentionally or not create one of the oldest surviving street photographs of New York City. It’s not a daguerreotype but an ambrotype, according to Invaluable.com, which posted the image when it was up for auction. (It recently sold.)

Abraham Bogardus in the 1870s

An ambrotype involves a slightly different process than a daguerreotype but is quicker and cheaper to produce, according to the Library of Congress. “Photographers often applied pigments to the surface of the plate to add color,” the LOC stated of ambrotype producers—which could account for the red brick buildings in an otherwise black and white image.

Besides Baker & Sadler at the far left, the store signs are hard to read. Invaluable.com says one sign advertises a bakery and confectionary, others are for a cobbler, a drugstore, a cabinet making firm, and a jeweler.

Could these men be owners and employees of the stores they stand in front of—or are they practicing the time-honored New York City activity of hanging around on the street whiling away the time?

[Top image: invaluable.com, second image: Wikipedia]

Finding the servant call buttons in New York City’s Gilded Age mansions

April 4, 2022

Next time you’re in one of the city’s former Gilded Age mansions—reborn as a museum, perhaps, or a cultural center, store, or some other public building—be on the lookout for tiny buttons.

Sure you’ll want to gaze in amazement at the mansion’s elaborate interiors, with their lovely detailing, mahogany wood staircases, and splendorous ceiling murals.

But while you marvel at the beauty of it all, you might notice one of the purely functional servant call buttons that discreetly summoned the hired household help who allowed wealthy families to live so well.

The servant call buttons above come from the Gothic mansion on Fifth Avenue and 79th Street. Once known as the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion, it’s now home to the Ukrainian Institute. Several servant buttons can be found around the interior, sometimes chipped or partly painted over.

Frick mansion, 1919

This servant buttons below were found at the Frick Collection, now a magnificent art museum but once steel magnate Henry Clay Frick’s palazzo-like mansion at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. The Frick family had 27 servants living on the third floor of his mansion, according to the Frick Collection website, and I imagine these buttons were pressed often.

Butler, pantry, housekeeper—I can’t quite make out the rest. The buttons came from the museum’s West Gallery. And no, none of the buttons meant to summon servants worked!

[Third image: MCNY 1919 X2010.28.828]

A ghostly store sign returns to view on Avenue B

March 14, 2022

Humble, homemade-looking store signs used to be more prevalent in Manhattan. Now, one of these unadorned signs—for an unbranded cosmetics and gift shop—is back in view at the tenement storefront at 205 Avenue B.

Nothing about this former store seems to exist in archives or old neighborhood photos, making the sign a ghostly remnant of a very modest-looking local business.

How far back in East Village history does this sign go? I’m not sure, but the store may have been selling makeup and gifts up until about 40 years ago. The sign reappeared sometime after Raul Candy Store closed in 2019, 38 years after setting up shop at 205 Avenue B in 1981, per EV Grieve.

h/t: Ghost Signs NYC