Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

The understated 9/11 memorial few people know

September 11, 2017

It’s just a simple plaque, mostly bronze with a bright red, white, and blue American flag, four sentences plus a bas relief image of the skyline before September 11, 2001.

Unless you regularly walk up First Avenue in Kips Bay, you probably wouldn’t even notice it. The understated plaque is affixed to the side of a VA Hospital building on First Avenue near 23rd Street.

I don’t know when the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System put it up.

But in a city filled with sizable memorials and monuments commemorating the immense bravery and tragedy of 9/11, there’s something to be said for a small quiet plaque that sits off to the side.

On another note, is this an archaic use of “hale” as a verb in the second sentence below?

In the lyrics for the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag is “hailed.”

Two Prince Street relics on a pre-SoHo building

August 19, 2017

SoHo’s cast-iron commercial buildings have long been repurposed into expensive lofts and boutiques.

But hiding in plain site on the handsome, two-story brick and iron building between Greene Street and Wooster Place are two relics, nods to the neighborhood’s late 19th and 20th century manufacturing past.

These metal signs, advertising the services of a lithographer and engraver as well as an office supplies seller, flank the ends of 120-125 Prince Street, actually two separate buildings constructed in 1892-1893 with a common facade.

“Stationery, Office Supplies, Paper, and Twine” states the one on the right. Twine? To wrap packages in an era before masking tape.

The sign on the left must have advertised the latest technology in printing at the time. Lithographing, engraving . . . manifold books? Special forms?

What they were for we may never know, but these businesses must have been right at home in the area at the time, when this post–Civil War red-light district was the 20th century commercial hub known as Hell’s Hundred Acres.

Imagine the area back then: few residents, no shopping, and all day in nearby buildings machinery churned and whirled and pulsed with the energy that comes from making things.

[Bottom photo: Wikipedia, 2012]

Identifying an eerie drugstore in a 1927 painting

August 14, 2017

The “eerie nocturnal view” of this corner apothecary painted by Edward Hopper in 1927 is easy to get lost in.

At first glance, Silbers Pharmacy looks like an ordinary city storefront, whose bright electric lights and colorful window display on a dark night feels inviting.

Here is a place city residents can turn to for late-night prescriptions, or even for an emergency laxative (Ex-Lax was invented in 1906 and manufactured in Brooklyn, hence the Ex-Loft lofts on Atlantic Avenue).

Yet the more you look at the painting (simply titled “Drug Store”), the more ominous it becomes, strangely devoid of any sign of humanity. It’s classic Hopper, of course, an artist whose work reflects the isolation and alienation of modern urban life.

So where was Silbers Pharmacy? Hopper apparently never identified the street corner; he was known to obscure identifying details of many of the storefronts he painted, as he famously did with his late-night diner masterpiece, Nighthawks.

But it was likely near his studio on Washington Square. One guess comes from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which put forth the possibility that Silbers occupied the Waverly Place building where Three Lives & Company bookstore is today.

Three Lives’ official address is on West 10th Street. But the door to the left is 184 Waverly, just like the “184” on the Silbers sign. And hmm, doesn’t the cast-iron column outside the door looks quite similar?

[Second photo: Alamy]

The street names carved into Brooklyn corners

August 14, 2017

Look up at this busy Park Slope corner, and you’ll see two street names engraved on decorative blocks: 5th Avenue (the numeral, lovely!) and Garfield Place.

The lettering is in remarkably good condition, considering that it could be 134 years old.

In 1883, two years after the assassination of President Garfield, Garfield Place became the new name of what used to be Macomb Street. (Though the Macomb name lives on engraved into another corner.)

Third Avenue and Dean Street both still exist, of course. But it’s unusual to see street names carved into marble, which decorates the facade of a New York Times‘ 20th century printing plant on this Boerum Hill corner.

The former printing plant now houses a school, which features these wonderful original Art Deco bas reliefs.

Hudson River vs. North River: which is right?

July 31, 2017

Anyone familiar with old New York maps and guidebooks has probably seen it: the river running along the western side of Manhattan is referred to as the North River, not the Hudson, as we know it today.

I always believed that North River was an old-school name for this body of water that fell out of favor after the turn of the 20th century.

But then I came across this plaque from 1960, affixed to Pier 40, the massive site built as a terminal for the Holland America cruise ship line that now serves as a recreational facility for Hudson River Park.

The plaque refers to the “Pier 40 North River.” As far as I can tell, most people by 1960 were calling it the Hudson. So which name is right?

Turns out the part of the Hudson parallel to Manhattan is actually the North River.

“The North River is that section of the mighty Hudson River which runs from the tip of Manhattan Island, at the Battery, northward to approximately beneath the George Washington Bridge—a distance of 11.3 miles,” states one 2008 book, Railroad Ferries on the Hudson.

“It is always called the North River by people in the shipping industry, with the name Hudson generally reserved for that stretch above Yonkers where Hudson River pilots are taken on board.”

The Dutch apparently named the river the North River to distinguish it from other rivers in the fledgling New Netherlands colony, like the East River and the South River (today’s Delaware River).

Nevertheless, a century later, there must have been some confusion over what to call it. Both names were in use even in colonial times—as this 1781 British map on the left shows.

What remains of a Gansevoort Street restaurant

July 15, 2017

In 1938, the short, unremarkable building at 69 Gansevoort Street was home to R & L Lunch—a luncheonette that I imagine primarily fed the men who worked in the Meatpacking District (but hey, ladies invited, per the sign!).

Forty-seven years later, Florent Morellet turned what became R & L Restaurant into Florent, the legendary 24-hour haunt of late nighters, club kids, sex workers, and New Yorkers who enjoyed eating brunch in a place that often felt like a party.

Below, Florent in the mid to late 1980s; note the pink neon Florent sign in the window.

Florent closed in 2008. The space housed a couple of short-lived restaurants, if I remember correctly, and now this time capsule of a storefront has recently transformed into a branch of a national fashion chain.

At least they kept that wonderful aluminum sign, which these days is one of the last authentic pieces of the days when the Meatpacking District actually was home to meatpacking plants.

[Top photo: Sol Libsohn via Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York; second photo: New York City Department of Records Photo Gallery]

A Little Italy sign reveals an old phone exchange

July 10, 2017

They’re hiding in plain sight all over New York: faded ads and signs with the old-school two-letter phone prefixes phased out in the 1960s in favor of 7-digit phone numbers.

Usually they stand for something in the neighborhood, if not the neighborhood itself, such as MU for Murray Hill; RA for Ravenswood, once a separate Village in Queens but now absorbed by Astoria.

But what to make of this sign high above a restaurant on Mott Street in Little Italy, noting a BA prefix? The guide I usually consult to find out where BA is and what it means is no longer online. The elevator company could have been located anywhere in the city.

ENY has many posts on old-school prefix sightings, but no BA, unfortunately.

A Dutch sailor’s photos of the New York of 1979

July 3, 2017

In 1979, Peter van Wijk was a radio officer in the Dutch Merchant Marine. That summer, his ship docked a couple of times in New York Harbor, giving him the opportunity to visit Manhattan and wander the streets.

Like all curious newcomers to New York, he brought a camera along with him, and he took photos of iconic tourist spots like the Empire State Building, the World Trade Center, and Times Square.

But he also captured the seemingly ordinary street scenes that offer fleeting glimpses into the heart and soul of the late 1970s city: shoppers going in and out of mom and pop stores, musicians and vendors drawing crowds, and taxis navigating traffic-choked streets.

Thirty-eight years later, van Wijk decided to share his previously unseen images, and Ephemeral New York has the wonderful privilege of posting them.

It goes without saying that the Gotham of 1979 was a vastly different place. These days, everyone wants to live in New York; in the 1970s, residents couldn’t get out fast enough. The city’s population dipped an incredible 10 percent from 1970 to 1980, to just over 7 million.

Ed Koch had been elected mayor a year earlier on a law and order platform. The city’s nickname, Fear City (or more ironically, Fun City), was a nod to rising crime and rampant graffiti.

Cuts in city services left garbage on the streets, and shells of buildings sat empty in the South Bronx, East Village, and the Lower East Side, among other neighborhoods.

You wouldn’t know any of this from looking at these photos. The city in this collection of images is animated and colorful, with life and energy.

It’s a New York that feels almost small scale compared to the contemporary city—more a collection of neighborhoods rather than an island of cookie-cutter stores and development.

The gritty, street-smart New York of the 1970s is often hailed as a more authentic version of the city. How true that is has been up for debate lately.

These photos don’t take a side. They’re simply fascinating portals into the past that bring memories back of the city in the late 1970s, before crowded subways, a critical mass of Starbucks and Duane Reade stores, and an army of residents wearing white earbuds as they go about their day.

[All photos:copyright Peter van Wijk]

The “Big Store” blows away 1890s New York

June 5, 2017

You could say that Gilded Age New York perfected the idea of the department store—a multi-floor, massive commercial space designed to dazzle consumers with sumptuous windows and fashionable displays and put the latest must-have goods within reach of the growing middle-class.

But even New Yorkers who shopped (or at least window-shopped) emporiums like Lord & Taylor, Arnold Constable, and Macy’s along Ladies Mile were blown away by the city’s first Siegel-Cooper store, which opened in September 1896.

Nicknamed “The Big Store” for, well, obvious reasons, Siegel-Cooper boasted 15 and a half acres of selling space inside a Beaux-Arts building on Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets.

More than 120 departments run by 3,000 employees offered everything from ladies’ fashions to a grocery store, dentist’s office, a pets department, several restaurants, and a bicycles department (this was the 1890s, after all, and wheelmen and wheelwomen had taken over the city).

The fountain in the center of the store gave rise to the phrase “meet me at the fountain”—which New York ladies did, in droves.

Women were the buyers for their families, after all, and the stores and restaurants of Ladies Mile were acceptable places for them to go when they were not in the company of men.

“The quintessential New York experience was to buy a five-cent ice-cream soda and sit beside the fountain, taking in the pageantry of fashionably attired women making their shopping rounds,” wrote Francis Morrone in Architectural Guidebook to New York City.

Steel-framed Siegel-Cooper was quite technologically advanced for its day. The tower over the marble-columned entrance bathed Sixth Avenue in electric light, and the basement had its own power station.

Siegel-Cooper even had its own exit on the 18th Street stop of the Sixth Avenue El. Shoppers could get off the train and walk into a second-floor entrance, without having to descend to the gritty street shadowed by train tracks.

New York in 1896 was just three years out of the Panic of 1893, which crippled the economy. But this was the Gilded Age, and ostentatious displays still appealed to consumers. Opening day, as you can imagine, was a madhouse.

“The crowds around the store half an hour before the opening time, 7:30 o’clock, numbered probably 5,000 men, women, boys, and girls, and they were for a little while interested in the unveiling of the show windows,” wrote the New York Times a day later, on September 13, 1896.

“When they had satisfied their curiosity, they found that 20,000 persons had joined them, and that they were hemmed in. . . . So great was the jam inside the store that few of the visitors saw anything, except the general details of the vast floors, beautiful floral trophies sent by friends and mercantile houses to the heads of departments, [and] the word ‘Welcome’ blazing in electric lights over the main aisle of the ground floor.”

The amazing thing about The Big Store is that it only dazzled New York a short time.

Less than 20 years later, Siegel-Cooper declared bankruptcy, and the building was converted into a military hospital during World War I.

After decades of use as a warehouse, among other functions, the Siegel-Cooper store was resurrected in the 1990s as a mini-mall anchored by Bed Bath & Beyond—one of the central businesses in a modernized Sixth Avenue shopping district.

Pieces of the old Siegel-Cooper legacy remain, however. The original imposing marble columns and lanterns flank the entrance.

And on the facade of what is now a Room & Board furniture store on 18th Street, you can see C-S insignias, as this building once served as the Siegel-Cooper’s wagon delivery storage space.

[Second photo: NYPL; third image: NYPL; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: unknown; sixth image: MCNY/Edmund Vincent Gillon; 2013.3.2.1799; seventh photo: Wiki]

Wise men once fished at the Gotham Book Mart

May 25, 2017

New York is getting a new bookstore tomorrow—an actual brick and mortar shop run by Amazon on the third floor of the Time Warner Center, the shopping mall at Columbus Circle.

With Amazon about to open, let’s take a look back at a legendary cozy, dusty literary haven that operated at the other end of Midtown—the Gotham Book Mart.

[The photo above shows the store in 1945, with a window display by Marcel Duchamp.]

Gotham Book Mart, with its black and white framed photos of 20th century poets and writers and endless shelves and stacks of books, existed at three different locations in the Diamond District from 1920 to 2007.

It was the kind of place where you could duck in and quietly be transported into the world of James Joyce or T.S. Eliot.

Browsers were always welcome, and the store’s founder, Frances Steloff, defied censors who banned the sale of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer in the late 1920s and 1930s.

“Wise Men Fish Here” read the iconic sign outside the door. Indeed. Only a handful of these old-school literary paradises remain.

[Top photo: Art-nerd.com/newyork; second photo: Alamy; third image, MCNY: F2012.99.156]