Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

What remains of an East Harlem pharmacy sign

October 1, 2018

Today, 2268 First Avenue is a brightly lit 99 cent store selling all kinds of household goods, party supplies, and colorful balloons.

But decades ago, in a different New York with independent drugstores on just about every block, this storefront was home to what appears to have been called the Purity and Accuracy Pharmacy.

I’m a fan the nifty Rx symbol—old pharmacy designs and icons are fun, like this mortar and pestle on the Upper East Side—and the cursive font reserved for the “pharmacy” part.

I don’t know when the pharmacy opened, nor is it clear when it closed.

But who doesn’t love coming across these bits and pieces of the city’s past hiding in plain sight, ready to tell a story of a long-gone drugstore and the people who shopped there?

There’s a Marx Brothers Playground in Yorkville

October 1, 2018

When the Marx Brothers lived at 179 East 93rd Street, the playground nearby that would eventually be named for them was just a car barn for the new electric trolleys owned by the Second Avenue Railway.

That was in the 1890s and early 1900s. Back then, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and Gummo lived with their parents, immigrants Minnie and Frenchie, plus assorted relatives in a cramped but lively apartment.

The future vaudeville and movie stars were coming of age in “a small Jewish neighborhood squeezed in between the Irish to the north and the Germans to the south in Yorkville,” according to 1961’s Harpo Speaks…About New York.

In the 1930s, after the brothers had achieved stardom and left tenement life behind, buses replaced the electric trolleys on Second Avenue

The car barn was abandoned and soon torn down, explains NYC Parks. In 1947, the land it once occupied was turned into grassy playing fields and made over into what the Parks Department called “Playground 96.”

It’s unclear exactly when the playground was renamed in honor of the local boys who became comedy legends.

But now that we have Marx Brothers Playground in the once rough and tumble neighborhood that inspired their characters and gags, perhaps city officials could add a plaque to the still-standing tenement where the brothers were raised?

New York’s filth inspired this West Side fountain

September 24, 2018

Much of Manhattan in the late 19th century was a revolting place.

The stench from factories filled the air. People routinely spit inside streetcars and elevated trains. Manure piled up on streets. Milk carried deadly bacteria. Water wasn’t always pure. Garbage was often tossed out of tenement windows.

To address the filth, Gilded Age organizations like the Metropolitan Board of Health were formed, hoping to brush up the hygiene of the city.

But fed-up private citizens also sprang into action. That was the genesis of the Women’s Health Protective Association, formed in 1884 by a group of prominent, reform-minded women tired of living in an unclean New York.

The group launched in a moment of utter disgust. Eleven prominent ladies whose homes overlooked the East River in today’s Beekman, “were so outraged at the continuance of foul odors which polluted the atmosphere of the entire neighborhood, causing them to keep windows closed in the hottest weather, and depriving them of their inalienable right to pure air, that they resolved the investigate the cause of this nuisance,” states an 1898 text.

Their proximity to the slaughterhouses, bone-boiling factories, and other stinky industry along the East River waterfront at the time was the reason they couldn’t open their windows.

So they did something about it, and helped clean up the city.

The New York of today is a lot more hygienic in many respects (most of us can open a window without smelling boiling bones), and the WHPA has long since disbanded.

Their efforts would otherwise be lost to history. But the group gave to the city a lovely drinking fountain on Riverside Drive and 116th Street in 1909.

Designed by Bruno Louis Zimm (he also created the Slocum Memorial in Tompkins Square Park), it was unveiled in a ceremony honoring the progress WHPA made “toward the betterment of the health of the public,” according to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.

The fountain is in an out-of-the-way spot, and it could use some spiffing up…kind of the way the city needed a deep clean back when these ladies got together.

[Top photo: Varick Street in 1895, by Jacob Riis, MCNY 90.13.4.320]

The faded cornerstone of the old police building

September 17, 2018

At the turn of the last century, when the newly consolidated New York needed a bigger, more modern police headquarters, city officials pulled out all the stops to build something glorious.

The result was a Beaux Arts beauty dominating slender Centre Street in what used to be Little Italy: a granite central pavilion and Corinthian columns topped by a gilded dome and an allegorical statue representing the five boroughs.

Completed in 1909, the new building was designed to “impress both officer and prisoner…with the majesty of the law,” according to a 1978 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The NYPD moved out of 240 Centre Street into newer, much uglier headquarters in the 1970s. But if you walked by the former police building today, you’d probably have no idea of its history.

Since 1988, 240 Centre Street has been a luxury condo, and it seems as if the developers did everything possible to erase anything relating to the police department on the facade.

Only the cornerstone, unveiled in May 1905 by Mayor George McClellan in a grand ceremony that featured a police band and mounted troops, provides a faded, chipped-away clue to the building’s former use.

[Second photo: Streeteasy]

The old-school subway signs at Chambers Street

September 17, 2018

Walking through the Chambers Street IRT station on the West Side not long ago, I noticed these tile subway signs, pointing riders in the right direction to the 1, 2, and 3 trains.

The station itself opened in 1918, and the signs look a lot newer than that. It’s kind of nice that the old-school spelling of uptown and downtown remain—with both words broken into two, so the signs read “up town trains” and “down town trains.”

They’re charming touches that take you back in time to a different New York as you make your way to your train. Luckily, other examples of vintage subway signage can be found in and outside various stations through the city.

The sign behind the sign at a Grand Street store

September 10, 2018

I’m not sure exactly when 229 Grand Street was built in the late 19th century. But as far as Lower East Side walk-ups go, it’s a cut above its neighbors.

That’s mainly because of the Gothic-inspired upper windows and the decorative accents on the ground-floor storefront.

And the checkerboard pattern at the entrance to the building—another wonderful old-school touch.

M. Kessler Hardware has occupied 229 Grand Street for decades. (It’s never open when I walk by late in the evening, but I assume it still operates.)

The shop has been there for so long, you can even see the Kessler name in flaked, faded paint on the window behind the more prominent hand-painted “M. Kessler Hardware” sign.

But look closely on the glass above the entrance door at the left. It looks like another layer of faded paint spells out “jeweler.”

Did Kessler share the space with a jeweler or jewelry store—or did a jeweler set up shop here between Elizabeth Street and the Bowery before Kessler Hardware came along?

A clue emerges in the New York Times archive. A January 1927 story describes the trial of a man accused of a “gem holdup” at a pawnshop at 229 Grand Street; $47,000 in jewelry was stolen at gunpoint from the Schwartz Brothers pawnbrokers.

With a haul like that, it sounds like this pawnshop had an extensive jewelry collection and may have advertised that on the store window.

[Top photo: Streeteasy]

Looking down at mosaic store signs in Little Italy

September 3, 2018

Lots of New York City shops used to have them: mosaics or tile inlays embedded in the sidewalk that proudly spelled out the name of the establishment at the store entrance.

These underfoot signs are few and far between in the contemporary city. But in the Little Italy of Lower Manhattan, specifically on Grand Street off Mulberry, you can still find them.

E. Rossi’s mosaic sign is one of the most colorful. This Italian gift and music store was established in 1910, according to the website.

Piemonte Ravioli opened its doors in 1920 and offers a maddening variety of homemade pasta. The sidewalk sign isn’t as colorful as E. Rossi’s, but it feels authentic and old school.

Ferrara beats E. Rossi and Piemonte when it comes to longevity. This bakery has been cranking out pastries since the late 19th century.

F. Alleva bills itself as America’s oldest cheese shop, founded in 1892. And according to this post from Eater, Tony Danza is one of the owners.

The mortar and pestles of a former city pharmacy

August 27, 2018

Today, 1209 Lexington Avenue is the home of a Warby Parker store, part of the trendy national eyewear chain.

But from 1899 to 2012, this was Lascoff Apothecary, a pharmacy on the corner at 82nd Street that was so old-school, they used to sell leeches.

Lascoff’s was a New York pharmacy at its finest, the kind of place with a pharmacist-owner running the show that every neighborhood had, before the era of Rite-Aid and Duane Reade (which have their benefits but are low on charm).

“The space was known and admired for its large, arched windows, cathedral ceilings, wrap-around mezzanine and hanging blade sign,” stated DNAInfo four years ago.

The sign has been replaced, the exterior painted over, and the apothecary jars, flasks of poison, and pharmaceutical scales that decorated the interior long removed.

But the facade still tips passersby off to the drugstore that used to be here.

Just look up at the mortar and pestles carved above the entrance.

At least we still have C.O. Bigelow on Sixth Avenue, with its vintage chandeliers and wood ladders—and a handful of other independent holdouts.

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]