Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

The mystery of a Lower East Side old store sign

August 13, 2018

The Chinese Hispanic Grocery at Eldridge and Broome Streets has a crisp new canvas awning with the bodega’s name on it, an apparent homage to this corner where Chinatown meets the Hispanic Lower East Side.

The new sign recently replaced a torn and tattered one that no longer hid an even older sign, which seems to read “Schonbrun Orient.”

An eagle eyed Ephemeral reader took the photos of the sign behind the sign a few months ago. Schonbrun is a Jewish name, a reminder of the Jewish Lower East Side of at least a half century ago.

But Orient—what kind of shop could this have been? The current owner of the bodega thought it might be a restaurant, but he wasn’t sure. A quick scan of newspaper archives didn’t turn up a clue.

[Photos courtesy of R.G.]

The ghost signs behind an ex-Bowery flophouse

August 6, 2018

Walking on the Bowery near Rivington Street the other day, the signage caught my eye.

Painted on glass panels were vintage-looking ads for restaurant fixtures—including the very old-school “bar benches” and “coffee urns.” (Does anyone use the term coffee urn anymore? Somehow I imagine it’s too morbid for Starbucks.)

The signs are on the ground floor windows of 219-221 Bowery, two unusual and conjoined late 19th century buildings with five floors of decorative panels, bays, and pilasters.

Clearly they were painted by a no-longer-operating restaurant supply company.

Numbers 219-221 are within the boundaries of the Bowery’s restaurant supply row, which sprang up in the middle of the 20th century, reports a 2004 New York Times article.

But numbers 219-221 are also located along the Bowery’s skid row, which became infamous in the 20th century, when Bowery was most often paired with the word bum.

These twin buildings with the mysterious kitchen-supply signs once housed a notorious Bowery flophouse called the Alabama House.

(It’s very faint, but you can just make out the name in a faded ad on the side of the building in the photo above.)

The Renaissance Revival/Queen Anne structure was built in 1889 and designed by James Ware, the architect who also invented New York’s signature dumbbell tenements.

When the Alabama was built, the Bowery had already become a dive district with a shadowy elevated train (at left, looking up Grand Street) and cheap bars, dance halls, and theaters lining Chatham Square to Cooper Square.

The Alabama joined a long list of lodging houses where for a dime (or less) a night, poor men could lay their heads (at right, another Bowery flophouse) through much of the 20th century.

By 1960, the fee for a room was still a relatively low 80 cents a night.

But the “gentle men, the sherry drinkers, the slightly unbalanced,” as a New York Times article described the denizens of the street at the time, would be shuffled elsewhere after 1967.

That year, it was announced that the Alabama Hotel, as it was now called, would be converted into artists’ lofts. “Bowery Hotel Where Derelicts Slept Being Converted to Artist Studios,” the Times headline read.

Now, more than 50 years later, the men who slept there are phantoms, just like the faded restaurant-supply signs.

[Fifth photo: MCNY, 1908 X2010.7.1.4022; Sixth photo: Jacob Riis, 1895, MCNY 90.13.3.63; Seventh photo: New York Times 1967]

All that remains of a now-defunct Bronx hospital

June 18, 2018

With their many rooms and spacious lobbies, many hospitals from early 20th century New York City have been repurposed into co-ops and condos.

Think St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village, the former French Hospital on West 30th Street, and a turn of the century hospital devoted to cancer on Central Park West.

But Union Hospital (above in 1970), founded in 1911 in the Bronx “for the treatment of all ailments,” continued its mission as a health facility even after closing in 1997.

The 1920s-era building the hospital once occupied still sits on East 188th Street and Valentine Avenue. Stripped of prewar details, Union was remade into Union Community Health Center, part of nearby St. Barnabas Hospital.

A few remnants of the old hospital remain. First, there’s the entrance sign, in a typeface that feels more Victorian than Roaring 20s.

Then there’s a cornerstone with the hospital name engraved on it, as well as the year the building opened: 1922.

That’s just a decade after Bronx County was formed, and in the middle of a time of enormous urbanization and expansion in what was once a rural part of the city.

[Top photo: Union Community Health Center]

The relics on tenements at a Lenox Hill corner

June 4, 2018

On the east side of First Avenue at 69th Street are two tidy tenements—and each one has a curious remnant of old New York on its facade.

The tenement on the north side has the cross streets carved into it at the corner. Look up to the second story, and you’ll see “1st Ave 69th St.”

These cross street carvings used to be very common in tenement neighborhoods, and many can still be found, if mostly faded and crumbled.

Perhaps they functioned as streets signs on poorer blocks that didn’t have actual signs in the early 20th century, when the tenements went up.

I’d heard that some of these signs were meant to tell elevated train riders where they were—but that’s not the case with these, since First Avenue never had an elevated train.

The cross street signs on the tenement across the corner is more unusual.

This one has two handmade “69st” signs etched in, as if finger-painted on the plaster.

More tenements with cross streets on them can be found in Manhattan and Brooklyn—especially in older neighborhoods like Williamsburg, downtown Brooklyn, the East Village, and the Lower East Side.

An East Side sign with an old New York address

May 14, 2018

Outside a pretty walkup building at 242 East 60th Street is a postwar-style sign for an apartment building called Ambassador Terrace, a white-brick highrise in the East 40s.

I’m sure the interiors and lobby at the Ambassador have undergone upgrades over the years. But you wouldn’t know it from the sign, with its wonderful two-letter prefix on the management office’s phone number.

LO for Longacre, a reminder that Times Square was Longacre Square until 1904.

What’s also great is the two-digit zip code: 18.

These short postal codes were instituted in the 1940s to help speed mail delivery. They were replaced by the 5-number zip codes we use today in the 1960s.

Here’s more examples of old phone exchanges found around the modern city. And postal codes too: this one was hiding on East 10th Street.

This parking garage was once a silent film studio

May 7, 2018

I’ve always loved the bright neon 20th Century Garage sign at 318 East 48th Street.

But I had no idea that the garage behind the sign was once a movie studio—where famous silent screen stars churned out the comedies and melodramas early 20th century audiences couldn’t get enough of.

On the first floor was the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, opened around 1916.

Her name might not be well-known today, but Norma Talmadge (left) was an A-list actress in the teens and early 1920s.

Talmadge was a plucky young woman who often played the lead in dramas and romantic comedies; she got her start doing bit parts at the Vitagraph studio in Flatbush while still a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn.

On the second floor, Norma’s sister Constance made her films.

 

Constance Talmadge, also a bit player at Vitagraph, was a star in her own right. She played “Mountain Girl” in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and became a popular comedic actress.

Also in the same building was the Comique Film Corporation, where Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton made slapstick films like The Butcher Boy.

The thread uniting all these stars was Norma’s much older husband, Joseph Schenck—a producer who brought his different movie concerns under one roof for a brief time until 1921, according to Hollywood on the Hudson.

After that, Schenck and his stars decamped to Hollywood. New York’s brief run as the movie-making capital of the country was coming to an end.

Norma and Constance’s careers didn’t last much longer either. Once talkies hit the scene, the two were edged out and mostly retired from screen roles. Reportedly they made lots of cash from their movie days, getting a cut of the box office.

It’s been a century since the garage was a film studio—but imagine the glamour in that warehouse all those years ago!

[Fourth photo: The Real Deal]

The lives of a former Chambers Street firehouse

April 23, 2018

New York is all about repurposed buildings. And the slender, restrained brick building at 160 Chambers Street perfectly exemplifies this.

For almost 200 years, as this stretch of today’s Tribeca has changed, it’s served as a private home, police station, charity hospital, firehouse, commercial space, and then back to residences once more.

160 Chambers began as the three-story brick home of a builder named Samuel Thomson. Completed in 1833, it would have been a half-block from Stuart’s candy and sugar refinery at Chambers and Greenwich Streets—a place of industry it what was still a mostly residential section of the city.

The house changed hands three years later, according to a Landmarks Preservation Committee report. A prominent lawyer named David Ogden moved in; he made it his home until 1848.

Who lived in it after that is unclear. But an ad for the residence ran in the New York Times in 1853 described it as “built in the most substantial manner.”

By 1863, as the neighborhood lost its luster as a residential enclave, 160 Chambers was purchased by the city and turned into a police station for the Third Precinct. At the time, a professional police department had only existed in Manhattan for 18 years.

During its years as a precinct house, two more stories were added, and it underwent a redesign in the Second Empire style, reflected in the mansard roof.

“The Third Police Precinct Station House was located here until 1875,” states the LPC report. “The building then housed the House of Relief (left), a hospital under the charge of New York Hospital, from 1875 until 1894.”

After the House of Relief left, city officials decided to make 160 Chambers Street a firehouse for Engine Company 29, altering the first floor to make room for a fire engine. Firefighters were based here until 1947.

Until the 1960s, it was home to the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.

Subsequently sold by the city and put back in private hands, “[160 Chambers] was converted to commercial use in 1967, and since the mid-1980s the building has had commercial use at the ground story with residential units above.” StreetEasy gives us a peek inside some of these million-dollar apartments.

The current commercial tenant is a beauty spa. But isn’t it wonderful that the word “engine” flanked by two 29s still exists above what was once a fire engine exit?

[Third image: New York Times 1853; fourth photo: Medical Center Archives of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell via Tribeca Trib]

A mysterious store sign reappears in Flatiron

April 23, 2018

The upside of new construction is that old bits and pieces of the city come back into view.

At 1165 Broadway, a landmarked 1867 building (below, in 1900) currently being transformed into coop, a shadowy color sign has reappeared.

“Smith’s” the sign says. The logo next to it reads “Guaranteed never to rip” and includes an image of the biblical Samson and a lion. A smaller tagline reads “wear like Samsons . . . made?” That fourth word is hard to figure out.

So what was Smith’s selling? The phrase “guaranteed never to rip” was used in ads for cheap suits decades ago. But the mention of Samson, known not for cheap suits but his ability to rip a lion in half, makes this ad a mystery.

[Second image: NYPL]

What remains of downtown’s “College Place”

April 16, 2018

On the side of a red brick walkup on West Broadway and Warren Streets is a gem of an old New York street sign: College Place.

It’s two stories up, visible from the street as well as the elevated train that ran up and down this stretch of West Broadway from 1878 to the 1930s.

What was College Place? This part of Lower Manhattan was the first home of King’s College, chartered in 1754 and renamed Columbia College after the Revolutionary War.

College Place became the name of the southern end of what was then known as Chapel Street in 1830; eventually Chapel Street merged with another road called Laurens Street to become today’s West Broadway in 1896.

Columbia relocated to the eventual site of Rockefeller Plaza in 1857; by the turn of the century, what was now called Columbia University occupied its present-day campus on Broadway in Morningside Heights.

The little street sign hiding in plain sight above a dry cleaners isn’t the only remnant of Columbia’s colonial-era downtown days.

A 1918 subway tile in the nearby Chambers Street Station, hard to see thanks to grime and soot, depicts the school’s first building.

[Third image: 1835 David Burr Map of New York City]

The end of a one-screen East Side movie theater

April 2, 2018

On a walk along East 59th Street between Second and Third Avenues, something caught my eye—a former movie marquee fronting a row of tenements.

Was this little space, now a high-end workout studio, once a theater?

A quick investigation showed that it was the site of the former D.W. Griffith Theatre, a single-screen movie house that appears to have opened in the 1960s. At some point underwent a name change and became the 59th Street East Cinema.

“The 59th Street East Cinema, originally called the D.W. Griffith Theatre, was an art house theater located in midtown Manhattan,” explains Cinema Treasures.

“It belonged to a cluster of single, twin, and triplex movie theaters; all of which were within two blocks of each other.”

“One of many subterranean venues around the city, this single screen theater was reached through a small entrance that originates on E. 59th Street,” continued Cinema Treasures.

“The entrance continued past a modest concession area and then ended at a staircase, descending to theatre level.”

The 59th Street East Cinema looked like a wonderful place to hide away for a few hours in a pre-multiplex era.

It seems like the kind of theater that felt like a secret, transporting you to a cinematic world of thoughtfulness and reflection, and perhaps exposed you to new artists.

Alas, the art-house thing didn’t last. By the 2000s this little jewel box was renamed ImaginAsian (at right), showing Asian films, according to Cinema Treasures.

In 2010 it became Big Cinemas Manhattan, playing Bollywood flicks. Today, the theater is an exercise studio run by workout star Tracey Anderson with motivational wisdom rather than movie titles on the marquee.

It’s a transformation similar to what’s happened to other small city theaters, like this one in Greenpoint that now has Starbucks on the marquee!

[Third image: Cinema Treasures; fourth image: Yelp]