Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

The many lives of an East Houston Street theater

April 22, 2019

For almost two centuries, 143 East Houston Street has been many things to many people, from a church to a fight club to an indie movie house.

Now it’s destined for the wrecking ball, to be replaced by a $30 million office space. Let’s pay homage to this remnant of another city by looking at all the ways it served New Yorkers for 180 years.

Some of its history is murky, such as its beginnings as a church.

It’s not clear if it started out as a Dutch Reformed Church built in the 1840s (as a 2018 New York Times piece has it) or a German Evangelical Mission Church, dating back to 1838, stated The Real Deal.

By the late 19th century, a church and two parish houses on the site were run by German evangelicals, who perhaps also used the buildings as an immigrant meeting hall.

Remember, East Houston Street at the time was squarely in Kleindeutschland—the city’s vibrant Little Germany neighborhood.

By the early 1900s, Little Germany was departing for Yorkville, and 143 Houston became a fight club.

“The building’s showbiz debut probably came in 1908, when Jack Rose, a gambler and minor figure in organized crime, painted over the religious scenes and held prizefights there, calling it the ‘Houston Athletic Club,'” stated The Village Voice in 2001.

East Houston by then was also part of the burgeoning Yiddish theatre scene.

What would come next? A nickelodeon featuring Yiddish movies and vaudeville acts—run by an enterprising guy named Charlie Steiner.

“With minimal modification, the Athletic Club became the (above right) ‘Houston Hippodrome’: The entrepreneurs converted the pulpit into a stage, put the projection booth in the organ loft, and left the wooden pews,” according the The Village Voice.

“Admission was 10 cents, with a half-price matinee. Two proto-snack bars opened to serve the crowds: a dairy restaurant in the basement and Yonah Shimmel’s knish bakery, still in operation, next door.”

In 1913, the Houston Hippodrome was the site of a deadly stampede (above left). A projectionist thought he saw smoke and yelled fire! into the audience.

Two patrons were killed. The incident made headlines for weeks as city officials recognized the building as a potential firetrap.

“The old church building is dry, worm-eaten tinder, which would need nothing more than a match dropped in a corner to spring into blaze,” the paper quoted the coroner.

In 1916, Steiner rebuilt the Houston Hippodrome, with some of the wood from the old church still remaining, according to some sources.

He reopened it a year later as the Sunshine Theater (above); the name was changed in the 1930s to the Chopin Theater.

By 1945, the curtains went down and the building was turned into a hardware warehouse (above, in the 1980s).

In 2001, a restored and refurbished theater became the much-loved Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Today, it’s now the much-mourned Landmark Sunshine Cinema. The doors have been bricked in (above right) since 2018, and the unique facade stands defeated, awaiting its fate.

[Second photo: cinematreasures.com; third image: Evening World 1913; fourth photo: cinematreasures.com; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

What’s left of a Greenwich Street boarding stable

April 15, 2019

The remains of New York’s horse and wagon past are all over Gotham’s side streets and outer edges, where delivery companies often owned stables to house their working horses.

The far West Village still has many of the carriage houses and stables built in the neighborhood in the late 19th century, when the area was rougher and more working class.

One lovely example is this red brick and stone stable, built in 1893 at 704-706 Greenwich Street. It was used by various delivery firms who relied on horses and wagons (and later trucks) to pick up and drop off goods.

The “Boarding Stables” signs have faired pretty well over the decades.

It’s right at eye level for riders of the Ninth Avenue elevated, which used to run up Greenwich Street (below on the left side of the photo, in 1940).

But the letters across the facade of the building (now apartments) are too faded for me to make sense of. Is “Greenwich” the word on the left?

[Second image: NYC Department of Records 1940 Tax Photo]

A mystery phone exchange on an East Village sign

April 8, 2019

How long has Abetta Boiler & Welding Service been building and repairing the infrastructure of New York City?

At least since 1957, according to a listing in the Greater New York Industrial Directory.

And that makes sense, based on the old two-letter phone exchange that’s still on the company sign over a garage on East First Street in the East Village.

GR for Gramercy? Greenwich? It’s hard to know, as it’s been more than 50 years since the two-letter exchanges were phased out in favor of digits.

It’s getting harder to spot some of these old exchanges on signs and storefronts, but the Abetta sign stands as a reminder of what phone numbers used to look like in New York.

The artwork on the garage door is an appropriate ode to an old-school Manhattan business, too.

The best old-school butcher sign on Ninth Avenue

April 1, 2019

You don’t have to be a meat eater to appreciate the old-style store signs at Esposito, a meat market at Ninth Avenue and 38th Street that’s been making sausage and selling cold cuts since 1932.

Yet there’s something a little unusual on the wholesale “Giovanni Esposito & Sons” sign down a bit on 38th Street.

I’ve seen similar store signs at other Italian specialty food shops that advertise “Italian” and “American.” But I’ve never seen one that added “French” to it!

The last Tad’s Steaks is in the Theater District

March 4, 2019

New York boasts plenty of trendy, pricey steakhouses. But it’s been a long time since the city has had room for a cut-rate chophouse chain like Tad’s.

Old-timers remember Tad’s, those red and white steakhouses with a late 19th century kind of typeface on its neon signs. They used to occupy Gotham’s crowded, slightly seedy corners from the 1950s and 1990s. (Above, a Tad’s once in Chelsea)

Times Square had a few (at left); one stood at Seventh Avenue and 34th Street too.

I recall another on East 14th Street just east of Union Square, which I think limped along after the Palladium closed and finally became a pizza parlor in the 1990s.

Now, only one Tad’s remains. It’s in the Theater District on Seventh Avenue and 50th Street (below).

The setup is basically the same as it was in 1957, when a North Dakota native named Donald Townsend opened the first Tad’s. He charged $1.09 for a broiled T-bone, baked potato, salad, and garlic bread, recalled the New York Times in 2000 in Townsend’s obituary.

“Little matter that the meat might be cardboard thin, with clumps of fat and sinew,” stated the Times. “For a tenth the price of a fancy steak dinner, a working man could watch his hunk of steer searing under leaping, hissing flames in Tad’s front window—’a steak show” in Mr. Townsend’s memorable phrase.

That broiled steak dinner now runs $9.09. But the cafeteria-style meal is still a bargain if you’re looking for an old-school New York experience or miss the city’s once ubiquitous mini-franchises, like Chock Full O’ Nuts or Schrafft’s.

[Top photo: Renee J. Tracy/Foursquare; second photo: Noiryork.net]

The end of the Stanton Street gravestone district

February 25, 2019

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Manhattan had its districts.

There was the garment district, the novelty district, the meatpacking district, and even a pickle district, where 80 merchants on a six-block stretch of Essex Street cured vegetables in barrels.

But this is all that remains of the city’s gravestone or monument district, once centered on Essex Street at Stanton Street.

The S. Silver sign in English and Hebrew still hangs off the second floor of the tenement at 125 Stanton Street.

“Silver-Monuments” is still above the storefront in old-school big black letters, and the company name is painted in yellow and black across three stories of the building’s facade.

But the actual monument shop itself, which had been carving granite headstones since 1946? The space where generations of grieving people picked out monuments for loved ones has been gone since 2015.

Today, it’s a yoga store, surrounded by the signage of the previous tenant. Silver Monuments packed up and moved to Queens two years ago, reported The Low-Down in 2017.

A 1940s handbag store sign comes back into view

February 18, 2019

There’s a handsome building on Lexington Avenue at 73rd Street built in the late 1890s with a ground floor now hidden behind scaffolding.

That’s bad news for the retailers trying to attract street traffic along this slender retail stretch of Lenox Hill.

But it’s good news to fans of old New York store signs, which often reemerge from behind newer signage during construction.

That’s the case with the shop on this corner, which sold handbags—or as the sign painted on the window says, “ladies hand made bags.”

“Custom made,” another painted window sign tells us, hard to see behind the building’s decorative storefront.

How far back does this long-gone bag store date to? Here it is in a 1940 tax photo from the online gallery of the New York City Municipal Archives.

It’s not the best image, but you can make out the same signage that’s at this corner store today, spotted by Ephemeral reader Robert C. Thanks for sending it in!

The writing on the wall of an East Side tenement

February 11, 2019

Sometimes in New York you come across a building that’s trying to tell you something. Take this red-brick tenement on the corner of Second Avenue and 109th Street.

At some point in the past, ads were painted on the facade—designed to catch the eyes of Second Avenue El riders and pedestrians in a neighborhood that was once a Little Italy, then became Spanish Harlem by the middle of the century.

Now, perhaps nine decades later, enough faded and weathered paint remains to give us a clue as to what the ads were about.

The ad on the right side of the facade might look familiar to faded-ad fans; that familiar script used to be painted all over the city.

Fletcher’s Castoria was a laxative produced by Charles Fletcher all the way back in 1871. The company promoted the product until the 1920s with ads on the sides of buildings, a few of which can still be seen today.

This photo taken by Charles von Urban (part of the digital collection of the Museum of the City of New York) shows a similar ad on East 59th Street in 1932.

The ad—or ads—on the left side of the tenement are harder to figure out. “Lexington Ave” is on the bottom, and it looks like the word “cars” is on top.

A garage? A gas station? For a while I thought the word in the middle might be Bloomingdale’s, a good 60 or so blocks downtown on Lexington. There was—and maybe still is—a very faded Bloomingdale’s ad on a building at 116th Street and Lexington.

Exactly what riders and walkers saw when they passed this corner is still a mystery.

[Third image: MCNY 3.173.367]

A remnant of Avenue A on the Upper East Side

January 28, 2019

Contemporary New Yorkers know Avenue A as a downtown-only street spanning 14th Street to Houston.

So it’s a shock to the system to be faced with evidence that in the 19th and early 20th century city, Avenue A actually picked up again and ran 34 blocks through the Upper East Side, from 59th to 93rd Street.

Proof, aside from several old Manhattan maps? (Like this one, from the 1870s).

Check out the address engraved into the corners of P.S. 158, an elementary school on today’s York Avenue between 77th and 78th Streets.

“Ave. A” it clearly reads. And it should, because when the school opened in the 1890s, this was Avenue A.

York Avenue didn’t get its name until 1928, when the city officially decided to rename Avenue A uptown in honor of World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York (who was actually from Tennessee, but was feted by the city after the war ended).

The renaming had another purpose: It was hoped that a new name would be “symbolic of the rehabilitation of the East Side,” according to a New York Times article.

As far as I know, this is the only remaining vestige of Avenue A’s uptown stretch.

[Second image: NYPL]

What remains of 3 old-school corner drugstores

January 14, 2019

Neon signs, decorative mortar and pestles, brass chandeliers, wood shelves with sliding ladders…there’s a lot to love about New York’s longtime independent pharmacies.

Many of these corner stores have been in business for over a century, yet have somehow resisted getting steamrolled by Duane Reade.

I don’t know how long M&M Pharmacy has been on Avenue M and East 19th Street in Midwood. But the signage, at least, dates to the 1940s.

The corner neon sign with the Rx is a wonderful relic—and when was the last time you saw the word “toiletries” on a store sign?

The English lettering on M&M’s weathered neon sign looks very 1940s (the Cyrillic script, clearly, is not quite as old).

But inside the store, past the wood shelves, are Art Deco–inspired signs at the prescription counter that look like they’re from the 1920s or 1930s. (Thanks to D.S. for getting the inside and outside views.)

Another old-school corner drugstore that caught my eye is Health Wise, on York Avenue and 79th Street.

The website says this pharmacy has been run by the same family since 1992. But based on the gorgeous neon sign that casts a lovely glow at York Avenue and 79th Street, I wonder if the store has been there a lot longer.

Also in Yorkville on First Avenue and East 65th Street is Goldberger’s, in business since the Spanish American War. It’s the signage on the sides of the store, however, that make me feel like I’ve stepped into a noir.

Cosmetics, drugs, prescriptions…and then the fanciful Goldberger’s lettering, in script. New York drugstores had everything. Now if only this sign still lit up in neon!

[Top 3 photos: D.S.]