Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

A moment in time somewhere on the Bowery

November 1, 2021

An abandoned street cleaning cart. Men in hats walking alone. A streetcar traveling on dusty Belgian block pavement, an elevated train overhead, a succession of store signs and advertisements.

It’s just a glimpse in time around the turn of the century on the Bowery. But where, exactly? One of the buildings has 57 on it, suggesting 57 Bowery. That address no longer exists; it would have been near the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge.

There’s another sign that might give us a clue: the ad propped against a pole at the edge of the sidewalk. It looks like the first word is “London.” A theater with that name existed at 235 Bowery, where the New Museum is today between Stanton and Rivington Streets.

Whatever the exact address is, you can practically feel the energy and vitality—the pulse of a street now synonymous with a lowbrow kind New York life.

The unusual clock hands on a Third Avenue union sign

October 25, 2021

I must have passed the sign for the Metallic Lathers Union on Third Avenue in Lenox Hill a hundred times before finally noticing it the other day.

There’s a little history on it: the current union came out of an original union of wood, wire, and metal lathers workers that was organized in 1897. But what really caught my eye was the street clock attached to the sign, with its streamlined, Art Deco look.

The clock hands could be tools of some kind, perhaps a tool a lather might use? (A lather installs the metal lath and gypsum lath boards that support the plaster, concrete, and stucco coatings used in construction.)

This lathe cutter looks something like the clock hands. Maybe it’s a stretch, but perhaps the clock reflects something about the work these union members do in an industry vital to the growth of the city.

The faded ad that sent newcomers to the Hotel Harmony in Morningside Heights

October 18, 2021

So much of New York’s past can be gleaned from the faded ads on the sides of unglamorous brick buildings. Weathered by the elements but still somewhat legible, they featured a product, a place, or a service that offers a bit of insight into how city residents once lived.

Case in point is the wonderfully named Hotel Harmony. The color ad for this “permanent and transient” hotel can be seen on Broadway and West 114th Street.

Based on the ad, the Harmony sounds like a run-of-the-mill hostelry aiming to come off as a little high class, especially with that tagline, which is supposed to say “where living is a pleasure,” per faded ad sleuth Walter Grutchfield.

The Hotel Harmony in 1939-1941

The actual Hotel Harmony was a few blocks away at 544 West 110th Street. The tidy brick and limestone building first served as the headquarters of the Explorers Club, but by 1935 it was converted into a hotel, according to Landmark West!

What kind of people lived or stayed here? Based on how little activity from the hotel made it into newspapers of the era, I’m going to guess quiet types who blended into the neighborhood. Robbers held up the night manager in the 1950s and made off with cash; a resident described as a limo driver died at Knickerbocker Hospital, then on Convent Avenue in Harlem; his obituary stated.

The Hotel Harmony has been defunct since the 1960s, when Columbia University bought the building and converted it into a dormitory fittingly called Harmony Hall, Landmark West! reported. The repurposed hotel remains…and so does the spectacularly preserved sign that sent many visitors to the hotel’s doors for days, weeks, perhaps years.

[Second image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; third image: BWOG Columbia Student News]

A spectacular old-school sign on Orchard Street

October 4, 2021

Now this is what I call a spectacular vintage New York City store sign, found—where else?—on Orchard Street between Delancey and Rivington.

Sadly, S. Beckenstein is no longer with us. According to Bowery Boogie, this fabrics store founded by Samuel Beckenstein in 1919 (first in a pushcart, then an actual shop) shut its doors on Orchard Street and moved to the Garment District in 2003.

Perrotin, a bookstore and gallery, remains, and must be maintaining the wonderful throwback signage.

How Gramercy Park became the only private park in Manhattan

October 4, 2021

The story begins in 1831, when Samuel B. Ruggles, a New York City lawyer and real estate investor, had an idea.

The metropolis was growing fast, pushing past its Lower Manhattan borders and creeping up to 14th Street and beyond. The builders of all the new houses and commercial buildings didn’t always care much about urban planning, and Manhattan’s naturally hilly topography was being leveled and turned into streets and building lots.

Ruggles knew that elite New Yorkers would pay big to reside in a different kind of setting, even if it was somewhat north of the posh sections of the city. “He recognized the value of centering residences around inviting open spaces within Manhattan’s strict city grid,” stated the National Parks Service.

So Ruggles bought land between today’s 19th Street and 24th Street and Broadway (then known as Bloomingdale Road) and Second Avenue. This marshy part of the city was known as the Crommesshie, or krom moerasje, a Dutch term later corrupted to “Gramercy” that meant “little crooked swamp,” per the NPS.

Ruggles drained the marsh and planned the new neighborhood of Gramercy (below map, from 1831): 66 lots centered on a two-acre green space for residents only that would be an “attractive inducement for real-estate development in the early 19th century,” according to a 1966 report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The idea of a private park on city grounds sounds very undemocratic to contemporary New Yorkers. But it wasn’t all that unusual at the time.

First, the whole idea of a park as we know it today was a new concept; it would be another decade before city officials began seriously considering creating the open urban space that ultimately became Central Park in 1859.

Also, a precedent had been set, as Manhattan already had another private park for elite residents only: St. John’s Park, in view of St. John’s Chapel and many posh row houses in today’s Tribeca.

And since the buyers of the building lots would also pay to maintain the park, it wasn’t unreasonable that the park itself would be off-limits to outsiders, blocked by a wrought iron fence.

The first residents relocated to Gramercy in the 1840s, and two years later, planting in the park began, according to the LPC, adding that the iron gate has been locked since 1844. (The first keys were actually made of solid gold, per a 2012 article in the New York Times.)

Close to two centuries later, some of those original private dwellings remain, joined by elegant and historic apartment buildings. Gramercy Park residents successfully fought an attempt to have a cable car cut through the park in the 1890 and 1912, and the tranquil character Ruggles sought remains to this day, “long after the death of the society for which it was designed,” notes the LPC. (A fountain in the park pays homage to Ruggles.)

And what about the still-private park, the only one in Manhattan—St. John’s Park bit the dust in the 1860s—and one of two in all of New York City? (Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, created in 1926, is also members-only.)

According to the New York Times, just 383 keys to the park exist, and they’re reserved for residents of the 39 buildings around the perimeter of the park. (Guests of the Gramercy Park Hotel can also sign a key out and be escorted to the park by a staffer.)

“Any of the 39 buildings on the park that fails to pay the yearly assessment fee of $7,500 per lot, which grants it two keys—fees and keys multiply accordingly for buildings on multiple lots—will have its key privileges rescinded,” notes the Times.

Though Gramercy Park used to open one day every year to non-residents, that tradition has ended. If you really want to enjoy the gorgeous landscaping and the statue of actor (and presidential assassin brother) Edwin Booth yet can’t get a key of your own, you might have a shot on Christmas Eve.

In 2019, the park opened to the public for one hour for a caroling event. But be warned: there’s no word on whether that will ever happen again.

[Third image: 1831, MCNY 29.100.2973; fourth image: early 1900s, MCNY x2011.34.3342; fifth image: 1944, MCNY 90.28.30; sixth image: 1913 NYPL]

A sleek 1937 poster of New York City’s two public airports

September 27, 2021

Doesn’t this poster make you excited to fly? Well, considering the state of commercial flights today, maybe not. But in 1937, when the poster was created, it would have…the era of air travel was a thrilling development.

Air travel surged in popularity in the 1930s. Only 6,000 people took a commercial airline in 1930; by 1938 that number rose to 1.2 million, according to USA Today.

Ready to serve those air travelers were New York City’s two municipal airports. Floyd Bennett Field, near Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, began to handle commercial passengers in 1931.

North Beach airport was named for the North Beach amusement resort developed by the Steinway company in Queens in the late 19th century. Opened in 1935, North Beach was eventually renamed for Fiorello LaGuardia.

What about Idlewild, aka JFK Airport? That one didn’t open until 1948.

[Poster: LOC]

A sculpture on a Gilded Age mansion pays tribute to the owners’ six beloved children

September 16, 2021

When Isaac Rice and his wife, Julia, decided to build a mansion at Riverside Drive and 89th Street for themselves and their young family in 1901, they turned to builders who gave them a house with lots of architectural elegance.

The four-story dwelling, completed in 1903, was a mix of Georgian and Beaux-Arts styles, with an arched second-floor entrance, Spanish roof tiles, doric columns, and a porte chochere—likely for Mr. Rice’s new electric vehicles, according to a 1979 Historic Preservation Commission report.

But the couple also commissioned something especially unique on the facade: a bas relief sculpture that portrays six children as unique individuals playing, reading, and otherwise looking happy and engaged.

Though the identities of the children aren’t known for sure, it’s almost certain that they are the six kids of Isaac and Julia Rice. This marble ode to their offspring on such a visible part of the facade reflects the pride and joy they took in their large family.

The bas relief, carved into the first floor beside the porte cochere, is thought to be the work of Louis St. Lanne, a French-born sculptor who also designed a statue of a boy outside Isaac L. Rice Memorial Stadium in Pelham Bay Park, states the HPC report. The stadium was a gift to the city from Julia Rice after Isaac died in 1915.

Isaac and Julia Rice made many headlines in their day. Mr. Rice was a financier, inventor, and diehard chess enthusiast (he had a chess room in his mansion and is the genius behind a move called the “Rice gambit”).

Mrs. Rice, a non-practicing medical doctor, founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise and campaigned in the early 1900s to put a stop to tugboat horns, factory whistles, and other sources of noise pollution in the Gilded Age city.

It seems that their children stayed out of the limelight. But a 2012 article about the Rice mansion by Marjorie Cohen in West Side Rag prompted a comment from a reader who said the Rices were her great-grandparents.

“Their six children were comprised of two boys and four girls,” the reader wrote. “The girls were nicknamed Dolly, Polly, Molly, and Lolly. My grandmother was Lolly, the youngest of the daughters. The six children were quite interesting in their own right!”

The Rices moved out of their mansion and into an apartment in the nearby Ansonia, on Broadway and 73rd Street, after the panic of 1907 forced Isaac to sell his house, according to Cohen.

Amazingly, the family only lived in their Riverside Drive mansion for about four years. More than a century later, it’s one of only two surviving freestanding mansions on a curvy former carriage drive that once featured dozens of them. Through all the changes over the years, their marble memorial to their children remains.

[Fourth image: Rice Mansion, about 1905; MCNY X2010.7.2.25109]

Vintage store signs from the 1970s live on in Astoria

August 23, 2021

Astoria is known for its low-key neighborhood vibe, Greek food, beer gardens….and some very atmospheric vintage store signs on the main drag of 31st Street that look time-capsuled from the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s hard to beat this charming, no-frills sign from Rose and Joe’s, a traditional Italian bakery (and pizza place). The bakery has been at this address since the 1970s; previously it operated on the corner of 31st Street and Ditmars, per queensscene.com.

Housewares shop King Penny has a mom and pop neighborhood store feel to go with the old-school signage and striped fabric awning. Psychic readings, why not?

The Fabric Center sign just gives it to you straight in big bold red letters and a few details in blue. Based on the sign, I’d guess this business has been here since the 1970s, but I found no corroborating information.

Ferrari Cleaners has a horizontal sign over the entrance that may not be nearly as old as the vertical one attached to the facade on the second floor.

La Guli Pastry Shop is another stunner: the classy cursive lettering, slightly torn fabric awning, the curves in the display windows.

It’s hard to guess how old the sign is. But the folks behind La Guli have been running it in this location since 1937, and the current owner actually grew up in the apartment above the store, according to their website.

Deconstructing a 1905 view of East 14th Street

August 23, 2021

Not much from the 19th century remains today on East 14th Street between Fifth Avenue and University Place. On the north side, a 1960s white brick apartment residence dominates the block; on the south, two black-glass buildings frame a string of chain stores.

14th Street looking West toward Fifth Avenue, about 1905

But what a different scene it was around around 1905 (above), when a publishing company produced this postcard! This difference between then and now reveals a lot about the changes that came to this stretch of 14th Street just west of Union Square.

For starters, the sign on the right for “Biddles Piano” is a reminder that the block was firmly in New York’s first piano district, and 14th Street near Union Square was piano row.

In the late 19th century, having a piano in your brownstone parlor was a status symbol; player pianos later came on the market and became wildly popular. Steinway & Sons led the way on 14th Street in 1864, opening a showroom at Fourth Avenue. More piano company showrooms followed, including Estey, Steck, Wheelock, and Biddle.

The “no pain” sign on the lower left is also a relic of an era when dentistry was an emerging profession, and getting a tooth extracted even in a dentist’s office was a risky venture. People at the turn of the century were terrified of the possibility of pain, so dentists made a point of advertising no-pain procedures.

The sign for Japanese Art on the left reflects the Gilded Age craze for “Oriental” or Eastern art and design. Men wear straw hats and women stroll the street in white shirtwaists. It’s probably a warm day, and the brownstones on the right have their window shades down—the closest thing to air conditioning at the time.

The lone streetlight would have made this a much darker block than we’re used to today. Refuse cans (or are they ash barrels?) wait at the curb for pickup, perhaps by a White Wings street cleaning crew. Carts and wagons move through the street. If you needed to know the time, you would glance at the clock at the top of the building on the right at the corner of Fifth.

Looking past Fifth toward Sixth Avenue, trees can be seen on the north side of the street. That would be the Van Beuren Homestead, two circa-1830 brownstones surrounded by gardens and a patch of what was once farmland. (Imagine, a farm with a cow and chickens on the prime Gilded Age retail strip of Ladies Mile!)

Here, the lone survivor of the old New York family that built this homestead lived until 1908 while the urban city, with its 10-story limestone buildings and the Sixth Avenue Elevated, edged closer with each passing year.

[Top image: MCNY X2011.34.334]

A tenement sign high up at the corner of First Street and First Avenue

July 19, 2021

The corner of First Street and First Avenue is roughly the borderline of the East Village. And what better than an old-school address sign like this one affixed to a handsome brick building to welcome you to the neighborhood as you leave the Lower East Side behind?

These early 20th century address markers can be found on many tenement corners throughout New York City. In some cases, they may have served to let elevated train riders know exactly where they were passing.

Or perhaps these signs—sometimes raised and embossed, other times carved into the building—simply let pedestrians know where they stood in an era when reliable street signs had not yet arrived to ever corner in poor neighborhoods.