Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

A photographer captures a New York City of abstraction in the 1940s

January 10, 2022

The street photographers who point their cameras all over the city tend to focus on people in motion in recognizable places—the rush of crowds on a subway platform, barflies at a corner tavern, or the random strollers, workers, loafers, and others found at any moment in time on specific streets and sidewalks.

Brett Weston, on the other hand, used his camera to render a more abstract midcentury city. Instead of focusing on a city of people, energy, and vitality, he isolated ordinary objects and buildings and made them beautiful, haunting, even lyrical.

Weston, born in California in 1911 and the son of photographer Edward Weston, was already an established photographer before coming to Gotham in 1944. During World War II, he was drafted and sent to the Army Pictorial Center in Queens, according to the International Center of Photography (ICP). There, in a former studio owned by Paramount, filmmakers and photographers helped produce army training films. (Today it’s Kaufman Studios in Astoria.)

When he wasn’t working, Weston took to the streets of the city with his 8×10 view camera, per the ICP.

“Over the next two years, Weston took over 300 photographs, each distinguished by an attention to the formal values of linearity, depth, and contrast,” the ICP noted.

“Turning away from the documentary style that characterized much of the photography of New York in the preceding decade, notably Berenice Abbott’s project Changing New York (1939), Weston pioneered a highly subjective and abstract view of the city, often focusing on details such as the finial on an iron railing or ivy on the side of a building.”

The Danziger Gallery, which represents Weston’s work, stated that he “concentrated mostly on close-ups and abstracted details, but his prints reflected a preference for high contrast that reduced his subjects to pure form.”

Weston only spent a few years in New York, and his cityscape images are a small portion of his overall work. In the 1920s he apprenticed with his father in Mexico; most of his life he was based in California, where he had a studio and portrait business, according to The Brett Weston Archive (where his vast body of work can be viewed).

Weston died in 1993 at the age of 82. His New York images have a timelessness that brings them out of the 1940s to still resonate today. Like the work of the abstract expressionist painters of the 1940s, they reflect the quiet, solitary stillness of the modern city.

[First and second photos: artnet.com; third photo: International Center of Photography; fourth photo: artnet.com; fifth photo: International Center of Photography; sixth, seventh, and eighth photos: artnet.com]

Two 1930s tile signs point the way in a Bronx subway station

January 10, 2022

The B and D stop at Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx isn’t a particularly stunning station.

Opened as part of the IND Concourse Line, the station made its debut during the Depression year of 1933, when transit officials probably weren’t thinking of devoting extra money to beautify an outerborough subway station.

But the station does have two old-timey touches that give it a bit of loveliness and humanity: tile signs letting passengers know which way to go depending on what side of the Grand Concourse—the Bronx’s answer to the Champs Elysees—they needed to get to.

Vintage subway signage like this can still be found on some platforms. Here’s an example at Chambers Street on the West Side, and another at the Cortlandt Street R train stop telling riders where to go to get to the “Hudson Tubes.” And of course, the stop at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue is a treasure trove of forgotten subway signage.

This 1930 neon hotel sign still illuminates East 42nd Street

January 3, 2022

Rising 20-plus stories above 42nd Street, the old-school sign for what was once called the Hotel Tudor is a beacon for Tudor City, the apartment complex mini-city of 12 Tudor Revival-style buildings built in the late 1920s.

Like so many vintage neon signs in New York, its future was threatened. “The sign dates from 1930 when the hotel opened, and has a fleeting brush with demolition in 1999,” according to Tudor City Confidential, a blog that covers the complex. Community opposition helped keep it in place.

Today the hotel is officially known as the Westgate New York Grand Central—and the red glow of the sign lights the way along the eastern end of 42nd Street.

A piece of the cut-rate Lower East Side remains on Orchard Street

December 20, 2021

Hidden behind scaffolding and weathered by the elements, the sign is not easy to see. But when you do make it out, you’ll feel like a time machine has delivered you back to the 1920s Lower East Side—when Orchard Street meant cut-rate shopping, not pricy cocktails.

“Ben Freedman Gent’s Furnishings” (such an old-timey way to describe clothes and hats!) got its start on Orchard Street in 1927, when Mayor Jimmy Walker was partying at Manhattan speakeasies and the Woolworth Building qualified as the city’s tallest skyscraper.

The sign may be faded, but the business is still going. Sounding feisty, Freedman was quoted in a 1977 Daily News story about the poor prospects of Orchard Street. “Oh it’s changed for sure, so what?” he told a reporter, who added that Ben had been at his store peddling bargains for 50 years. “It’s still a great street.”

The Lo-Down has more on Ben’s business.

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]