Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

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.

The story of the twin former horse stables of Great Jones Street

July 5, 2021

If you walk down Great Jones Street between Lafayette and the Bowery, you’ll come across these handsome Italianate-style red buildings with almost identical black cornices.

Built by separate developers in 1871, the sign in the center of each cornice indicates that both buildings were used as stables. Like so many other former stables throughout New York, they were converted to residences with ground floor commercial space once automobiles replaced equines in the early 1900s.

True, both of these buildings originally did house horses. But while the sign on the cornice of one is authentic, the signage on the other was only put up in the 1970s.

The Great Jones Street stables in 2011, without scaffolding

Let’s start with Number 33, on the left. The slightly damaged letters on the cornice read “Beinecke & Co’s Stables.”

Who was Beinecke? Johann Bernhard Georg Beinecke immigrated from Germany at arrived at Castle Garden in 1865, according to the website Immigrant Entrepreneurship.

His is a rags to riches story. “Bernhard signed on as a wagon driver for a meat concern; within a few short years he bought the company and appropriately renamed it Beinecke & Company,” the website continues. Later, he branched out into banking and the hotel business, buying the original Plaza Hotel and other luxury hotels.

From 1890 into the 20th century, the horses that pulled the delivery wagons for the Beinecke meat company were stabled here, states the Landmark Preservation Commission’s NoHo Historic District Extension Report.

And what about Number 31 on the right? This building was originally the home of the New York Board of Fire Underwriters, and the LPC Report says the Underwriters board moved its Fire Patrol No. 2 here from 1873 to 1907. (At the time, of course, a fire patrol needed fire horses.)

“Following the departure of the Fire Patrol, the building was converted to other uses,” states the LPC report. One of those was home base for the Joseph Scott Trucking Company. This business established itself at 59 Great Jones Street in 1966 before relocating to Number 31 in the 1970, and then moved a third time to Number 33 until 1997, according to Walter Grutchfield.

Numbers 33 and 31 in 1980, by Edmund Vincent Gillon/MCNY

At some point, the trucking company added their own signage—copying the late 19th century look of Beinecke & Sons. “This is a modern cornice/pediment inscription meant to immulate its neighbor at 33 Great Jones Street,” Grutchfield writes.

Two 19th century former stables, but only one authentic stable sign.

[Second photo: Wikipedia; fifth photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon/MCNY 2013.3.2.1790]

Two mystery gargoyles on a 57th Street building

June 27, 2021

When you walk along New York City streets, you never know who is looking down at you. And on a busy corner at West 57th Street and Broadway, you’re getting the evil eye from two mysterious grotesques.

These stone figures are affixed to what was once the main entrance for the Argonaut Building—a terra cotta beauty with Gothic touches that opened in 1909.

Back then, the building was the showroom for the Peerless Motor Car Company, a long-defunct carriage and car manufacturer that vacated the premises in the 1910s.

This stretch of Broadway near Columbus Circle was known as Automobile Row, thanks to all the car showrooms that popped up there in the early 20th century.

After Peerless (above, in a 1909 ad) left, General Motors took it over. Eventually the building was renovated and converted to office use. The Hearst company bought it and based many of their consumer magazines here through the 2000s.

When it was important to have a presence in this car-showroom neighborhood, Peerless made sure they occupied prime real estate.

But they also designed the building to fit into the corner, which explains why it has the Gothic look of the Broadway Tabernacle Church, which held court on Broadway and 56th Street (above photo, likely from the 1940s).

But back to the grotesques. Spooky and sly, laughing or crying out, they’re either holding up the building or hiding under it with sinister intentions. Shrouded in what looks like robes and slip-on shoes, they’ve been with the building since the beginning…and are apparently here to stay.

[Third image: New-York Tribune, December 12, 1909; fourth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

A faded Woolworth’s store in East Harlem comes back in view

June 14, 2021

On a dreary stretch of Third Avenue at 121st Street in East Harlem is a block-long, two-story building emptied of tenants, waiting for the wrecking ball.

But hiding behind a metal frame on the exterior is a throwback to a very different New York: the faded imprint of a Woolworth’s sign against that iconic red backdrop: “F.W. Woolworth Co.”

Before Amazon, before Target, and before Walgreens there was Woolworth’s, the five-and-dime store chain that sold everything from underwear to goldfish to school supplies to sewing patterns throughout the 20th century.

Some had lunch counters, popular places to grab a cheap bite before the era of fast food and Starbucks. (Those lunch counters often attracted the down and out and lonely, as I recall from many, many trips to a Greenwich Village Woolworth’s as a kid.)

Woolworth had a strong presence in New York City. In Manhattan alone Woolworth’s occupied storefronts on Eighth Street, both ends of 14th Street, and all the major cross streets up to 125th Street.

Woolworth’s was once a regular shopping stop for all kinds of necessities; in New York City, they even played a role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Yet in it’s final decades, the store came off as shabby and doddering.

When the store at 2226 Third Avenue was built and then closed is something of a mystery. The last Woolworth’s in the US shut its doors in 1997.

I have a feeling this Woolworth’s disappeared long before that—though it existed in the 1930s, as the NYPL photo shows above, and it made it into the 1940 NYC tax photo, too.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

The stars, bars, bubbles, and petals of Manhattan manhole covers

June 7, 2021

Underfoot all over New York City are late 19th and early 20th century manhole covers embossed with unusual shapes and designs. There’s a practical purpose for this: raised detailing helped prevent people from slipping (and horses from skidding) as they traversed Gotham’s streets in wet weather.

They’re also a form of branding. The city’s many foundries of the era manufactured manhole and coal hole covers. Each foundry company seemed to have chosen a specific design or look to represent them.

And let’s not leave out the artistry that went into these. Manhole covers aren’t typically thought of as works of art, but there’s creativity and imagination in the different designs we walk over and tend not to notice.

J.B. and J.M. Cornell, who operated an ironworks foundry at 26th Street and 11th Avenue, added bubble-like details and smaller dots to their covers, as seen on the example (at top) found in the East 70s near Central Park. They also added swirly motifs on the sides, prettying up these iron lids and making the name and address easier to read.

McDougall and Potter, on the other hand, went for a classic star to decorate this cover on East 80th Street (second photo above). This foundry on West 55th Street also chose bars and dots, within which they included the company name and address.

This cover (above) on 23rd Street near Fifth Avenue, likely by Jacob Mark & Sons on Worth Street, once has colored glass embedded in that hexagram design. A century and then some of foot and vehicle traffic wore them down and pushed some out.

Could those be flower petals decorating the hexagram shape on this cover, also by the Mark foundry? Located near Broadway and Houston Street, it’s unique and charming, especially with the tiny stars dotting the lower end.

A metalwork dreamscape at a 1929 Gracie Square co-op

June 7, 2021

Ever since the far eastern end of 84th Street was rebranded Gracie Square in 1929 (after Archibald Gracie, whose summer home is now the mayor’s residence four blocks north), this one-block stretch alongside Carl Schurz Park has (mostly) been lined with tall, elegant apartment houses.

These buildings, off East End Avenue overlooking the East River, radiate a stuffy kind of luxury. But something very imaginative makes 7 Gracie Square stands out from its more staid neighbors.

It’s the magnificent metalwork on the front doors and window grilles—featuring a bestiary dreamscape of elephants, gazelles, plants, leaves, and curlicue, wave-like motifs that looks like snails or shells.

Of course the doors are the creation of an artist: a painter and muralist named Arthur W. Crisp. After relocating to New York City from his native Canada in the early 1900s, Crisp studied at the Art Students League and shared a studio on 34th Street.

Unlike most people working in creative fields, Crisp had some money by the late 1920s. He bought property on the future Gracie Square and commissioned a builder and architect to construct an apartment house, wrote Christopher Gray in a 2011 Streetscapes column in the New York Times.

“Crisp retained George B. Post & Sons, along with Rosario Candela, and they designed a tepid Art Deco facade of red brick, with vertical runs of brick set at an angle,” stated Gray.

Why Crisp decided to decorate the doorway entrance in various types of metal—and what inspired his vision to make this “tepid” building so unique—remains a mystery.

Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Crisp lived in one of the building’s maisonettes, according to Gray. He left behind his last name, which he playfully embedded in one of the iron window grilles to the left of the front doors (below).

Crisp didn’t stay long at 7 Gracie Square. In 1935, the building went bankrupt, Gray wrote, and at some point Crisp relocated to Charlton Street.

The building went co-op in 1945—and the dreamy, fanciful doors still greet residents, catching the eye of the occasional passerby when the sun hits the metal and creates a powerful gleam.

[MCNY X2010.7.2.8894]

‘Little Hungary’ was once on East 79th Street

May 10, 2021

A few weeks ago, Ephemeral New York put together a post about the former Czech neighborhood once centered around 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues on the Upper East Side.

The post generated many comments, with readers either reminiscing about a vanished enclave they remember well or wishing Manhattan still had pockets of ethnic neighborhoods like that one.

This week while looking through some photo archives, I find these images of a Hungarian grocery store. It could have been taken in Budapest, perhaps, but it’s actually Second Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets—smack in the middle of an area that used to be New York’s Little Hungary.

Like the old Czech neighborhood, Little Hungary had its churches and schools, community centers, and shops selling groceries and delicacies, like this one above. It isn’t the city’s first Hungarian neighborhood; that was on Second Avenue in the East Village. But at the turn of the century, just like their German and Czech neighbors, Hungarian immigrants relocated and colonized Yorkville through much of the 20th century.

Use Google Translate to find out all the unique offerings one could pick up here, foods I doubt you’ll be able to find on East 79th Street today.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]