Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

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]

Solving the mystery of a Brooklyn cafeteria ghost sign

May 10, 2021

Downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Street has been a bustling shopping destination since the 19th century. Storefronts have changed hands many times, and signs have gone up and down over the years as the street went from Gilded Age posh to middle class to more of a discount area through the decades.

But there’s something unusual above a storefront at the corner of Fulton and Jay Streets. Look up, and you’ll see a sliver of a ghost sign between an Ann Taylor and a human hair wig shop.

What’s left of the sign at 447 Fulton Street says “teria,” for cafeteria. The cafeteria logo, an apple with a W on it, is visible as well. What was this cafeteria, and when did it serve hungry Brooklyn shoppers?

It’s a mystery solved by the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. A quick search through their 1940 tax photo archive shows that it was a Waldorf Cafeteria, which appears to have two entrances at this corner: one on Fulton Street (harder to see on the photo’s right side) and one on Jay Street (at left).

Old-time New Yorkers might remember the Waldorf Cafeteria chain. Founded in 1903 in Massachusetts, franchises opened in New York City as early as the 1930s and seemed to stick around until at least the 1950s in various locations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.

The life span of the Waldorf Cafeteria on Fulton Street is unclear. But it might have been in business since the early 1930s, if this is it in a 1931 photo from the Museum of the City of New York that didn’t have a location listed in the description.

The cafeteria was certainly there in the 1940s, as the tax photo shows, and as the dozens of help wanted ads in 1940s New York City papers reveal. This ad comes from the Brooklyn Eagle on May 8. 1944. Women and girls were in demand, with so many young men away at war.

The Waldorf Cafeteria chain also figures into the backstory of a writer’s sordid death in the 1950s. Poet, gadfly, and Greenwich Village character Maxwell Bodenheim met with a literary agent at a Waldorf on Park Avenue and 25th Street the day before he was found murdered in a Third Avenue flophouse in 1954.

The Waldorf remnant sign on Fulton Street looks like it could date to the 1950s or 1960s, though photos from those decades don’t seem to be available. Whenever it dates to, big thanks to Ephemeral reader Joe Mobilia for noticing the sign and snapping the photos.

[First and second photos: Joe Mobilia; third photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services; fourth photo: MCNY X2010.7.1.16877; fifth image: Brooklyn Eagle.]

A 1908 fountain where Central Park horses can drink

April 26, 2021

It’s not Central Park’s most ornate horse water fountain. That honor likely goes to the Victorian-era Cherry Hill fountain, which to my knowledge no longer works but is quite beautiful, with frosted glass lamps and black goblets.

But the bathtub-shaped granite trough at the Sixth Avenue entrance to Central Park also contains a fountain—bringing fresh water to the animals that Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866, dubbed the “mute servants of mankind.”

The fountain was donated to the ASPCA by a Mrs. Henry C. Russell in 1908. Where the fountain was originally installed isn’t clear, but in 1983 it was found at Kennedy Airport’s “animal shelter,” according to a 1988 New York Daily News article, and then brought to City Hall Park.

After a Central Park carriage horse “swooned” in the summer heat in 1988, an outcry prompted the city to move Mrs. Russell’s fountain—now 113 years old—to this spot beside the park, near a line of waiting horses and their drivers.

Look hard to see this vintage Hershey’s sign on the Bowery

April 25, 2021

You might need a pair of readers to really see the Hershey’s brand name in this weathered sign hanging from the facade of 354 Bowery, between East Third and Fourth Streets.

But there it is embossed on both sides, advertising Hershey’s Ice Cream—which despite the similar lettering apparently has nothing to do with Hershey’s Chocolate.

How long has the sign been there? No earlier than 1940, as it doesn’t appear in the tax photo from that year archived by the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. This stretch of the Bowery back then was all hardware stores, sign makers, and a low-rent hotel called the Gotham.

However old it is, this it’s a charming relic of a time when the Bowery made room for a deli or luncheonette with ice cream on the menu. It might qualify as a “privilege” sign—a store sign featuring a brand’s name and logo, and typically the name of the store. The store owners didn’t have to pay for the sign because it was free advertising for the brand.

To see a clearer image of the sign, visit the Facebook group Ghost Signs—this snap was taken by Tori Terazzi back in January.

The man behind a faded store sign at 52nd Street

April 12, 2021

In 1960, East Side resident Louis Mattia opened his antique light fixtures business in a small tenement space at 980 Second Avenue. Back then, Manhattan’s design district—in the East 50s along First and Second Avenues—was at its peak.

Showrooms and decorative arts concerns still operate here. But the neighborhood doesn’t resemble the one Mattia likely knew, when the Stuyvesant-educated machinist who worked nights restoring and rewiring lamps decided to open his own store and make his love of lamps his livelihood, according to 1972 Daily News article.

“Whenever Louis Mattia sees an old sconce or candlestick, a discarded table leg, a broken chandelier, or a 50-year-old bubble gum machine, he immediately envisions the lovely light it will shed as a lamp and proceeds to make it,” wrote the News.

“Louis, who is not only a clever artisan but an imaginative artist, looks upon a lamp with the same affection with which a father looks at his child.”

For 35 years, Mattia (above, in a photo from the News story) ran his store, giving it up in 1995. He passed away in 2004 at age 87, according to a death notice in the New York Times.

Mattia may be gone and East Midtown transformed. But for several years now, the beautiful, hand-painted sign for the former lamp store remains on the facade.

“Louis Mattia” the sign reads in large faded gold letters, along with the PL (for Plaza) phone number. It’s a gentle reminder of the man who the Daily News called “buoyant with enormous joy in his art and craft,” the kind of artist and craftsman Manhattan doesn’t seem to have much room for anymore.

[Second image: New York Daily News]

What remains of the Stern’s store on 23rd Street

April 5, 2021

When the Stern Brothers opened their new Dry Goods Store at 32-36 West 23rd Street in October 1878, New York’s growing consumer class was floored.

The three Stern brothers from Buffalo had outgrown their previous shop on West 23rd Street as well as their first New York City store, established in 1867, around the corner at 367 Sixth Avenue). So a new cathedral of commerce was needed, and it featured a stunning cast-iron facade and five stories of selling space.

Stern’s was now the city’s biggest department store—one that catered to both aspirational middle-class shoppers and the wealthy carriage trade. These elite shoppers entered a separate door on 22nd Street, so as not to rub shoulders with the riffraff.

But everyone who came to Stern’s left feeling like a million bucks.

”When the customer entered the store, he was welcomed personally by one of the Stern brothers, all of whom wore gray-striped trousers and cutaway tailcoats,” wrote the New York Times in 2001, quoting Larry Stone, who started at Stern’s in 1948 as a trainee and retired as chief executive in 1993. ”Pageboys escorted the customer to the department in which they wished to shop, and purchases were sent out in elegant horse-drawn carriages and delivered by liveried footmen.”

Stern’s was such a popular spot on 23rd Street—the northern border of what became known as the Ladies Mile Shopping District, where women were free to browse and buy without having to be escorted by their husbands or fathers—this dry goods emporium was enlarged in 1892.

The store was always a stop for tourists, too. “We got off [the Broadway car] at 23rd Street and Josie took us to the Stern Brothers, one of the large and select dry goods houses where we saw the latest fashions,” wrote 12-year-old Naomi King, who kept a travel diary of her visit to the city with her parents from Indiana in 1899.

King wrote that she saw “all the new spring styles [and] the new spring color: amethyst, purple, or violet in all shades [and] stripes extending to gentlemen’s cravats in Roman colors.”

But Stern’s reign as one of the most popular shops on Ladies Mile wouldn’t last—mainly because Ladies Mile didn’t last. Macy’s was the first store to relocate uptown, from 14th Street and Sixth Avenue to Herald Square, in 1903.

Other big-name department stores followed. Stern’s made the jump to 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue in 1913, leaving their old building behind, according to a 1967 New York Times article marking the store’s centennial. For most of the 20th century, the palatial building on 23rd Street was used for light industry and commercial concerns.

That 42nd Street flagship store would ultimately close in 1970, wrote Gerard R. Wolfe in New York: A Guide to the Metropolis. By 2001, Stern’s shut down all of its stores and went out of business.

Since 2000s, Home Depot has occupied the old Stern’s dry goods palace, and it seems as if every trace of Stern’s has long been striped from the building.

Except on the facade. If you look up above the Home Depot Sign, you can see the initials “SB,” a permanent reminder of this magnificent building’s original triumphant owners.

[Top three images: NYPL Digital Collection]

The faded ad for a candy maker on Prince Street

April 5, 2021

On a walk down Prince Street at that magical time in the late afternoon when New York City’s faded ads seem to appear with some clarity, I noticed white lettering in a crack between two tenements.

“Specialists in (for?) Chocolate,” the white letters read. The rest of the ad was too blurry to make out, but the word “chocolate” looks like it’s on the last line as well.

The address of the tenement that featured the ad is 178 Prince Street, between Thompson and Sullivan. Was there a chocolatier or chocolate factory at this spot at one time?

Sure enough, the answer is yes. The company, Garnier & Fuerfile, advertised themselves in Confectioner’s and Baker’s Gazette in 1899 as “manufacturers and jobbers of” candy, with a factory and storeroom at 178 Prince Street.

Garnier & Fuerfile was located in what could be called a former candy manufacturing district. The Tootsie-Roll factory was nearby at 325-329 West Broadway. Heide’s licorice and jujubees were produced at 84-90 Van Dam Street. And a chocolate moulds company had its headquarters at 159 Bleecker Street.

I’m not sure when these French-sounding candy makers began occupying 178 Prince Street, nor when they left the premises. But the faded ad remains—a sweet sign to come across.

[Second image: Confectioner’s and Baker’s Gazette]