Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

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]

Stan’s sprawling sports empire at Yankee Stadium

May 25, 2017

It all started with Stan’s Sports World on River Avenue in the Bronx, across the street from Yankee Stadium (the Yankee Stadium built in the 1920s, that is).

Then came Stan’s Sports Bar, right next door, in 1979. This once rough and tumble place still has its wonderful old-school neon sign, shadowed by the elevated subway tracks.

Stan was Stan Martucci, a Staten Island family man who was more of a sports memorabilia kind of guy than a bar owner, his son (who owns the place now) told a reporter in a 2009 New York Times article.

The Stan’s empire expanded. There’s also Stan the Man’s Baseball Land and Stan’s Pro Cap Dugout, for official fitted MLB caps.

The newish stadium might be a little farther away, but for millions of Yankee fans who went to games in the gritty Bronx of the 1980s and 1990s, Stan’s is synonymous with Yankee baseball greatness.

The haunting beauty of a brick Bronx factory

May 8, 2017

A century or so ago, red-brick factory buildings in every borough of New York City hummed with the sounds of workers and machinery — producing everything from ketchup to wallpaper to pianos to candy.

These days, the red-brick factory is an endangered species.

If they haven’t been bulldozed or turned into luxury apartments (a Lifesaver factory in Chelsea has been rebranded the “Lifesaver Lofts“), they sit empty and forlorn — the company name barely discernible on the facade.

The Marcus Brush Company building is one of these factories.

The hauntingly beautiful structure is on Willow Avenue and East 135th Street in Point Morris, a South Bronx neighborhood three stops from Manhattan on the 6 train that was once a manufacturing hub.

Marcus Brush moved here in 1925, according to Walter Grutchfeld’s well-researched photo website.

The company went bankrupt five years later, but another brush company called Acme took over and remained there, possibly through the 1970s.

Perhaps the old factory is in use today. But on a recent visit, it seems as deserted as the rest of Willow Avenue, a building with no pulse and a smattering of graffiti on one side.

Considering that Point Morris is making something of a comeback these days — a brewery and distillery occupy nearby spaces — the Marcus Brush factory will probably come back to life soon.

It would be wonderful if the faded lettering on all sides isn’t wiped clean, and that it remains a reminder that in a different city, people made “high-grade brushes” and a living behind these faded brick walls.

Reading a tenement on the Lower East Side

May 1, 2017

A century ago, in New York’s densely packed neighborhoods, corner buildings often had the names of the cross streets carved into the facade, usually on the second story.

It’s never been clear to me if this is because poorer neighborhoods lacked real street signs or if it was part of an ornamental trend.

It makes sense on corners that would be seen from elevated trains — but sometimes the street names appear on buildings where no elevated line ever passed. (Maybe an elevated train was planned for the corner at one time and never came to pass?)

In any event, it’s always a treat to spot a new one though, like this one on a tenement at Canal and Eldridge Streets. It’s hard to see, hiding under 120 or so years of grime and traffic exhaust.

Here’s a whole bunch more, some fanciful and lovely, others more utilitarian.

A faded Greenwich Village sign goes back in time

April 24, 2017

Has this metal sign advertising a land auction really been posted on a building at Greenwich Street and West 12th Street since 1963?

Considering the faded lettering and typeface, it certainly seems to have been.

It’s easier to read in person, but the sign appears to notify the public about some real estate being auctioned off at the Statler Hilton — aka, the Hotel Pennsylvania — on February 7, 1963.

Apparently real-estate auctions there were regular events held by the city. A New York Times notice of one on March 8, 1862, explains that 182 city-owned properties found new owners during a two-day auction.

If only we could go back in time and buy New York property on the cheap, wait out the next few decades, and enjoy what today would likely be a real estate goldmine.

This is the coolest coffee sign in New York City

April 14, 2017

In a city with almost as many coffee places as bank branches and most of them bearing chain store logos, it’s hard to believe that this wonderfully generic plastic sign hasn’t been replaced . . . or fallen off.

It’s on West 21st Street west of Fifth Avenue, advertising a slender coffee house that consists of basically a long counter and chairs—the kind a different New York used to have on almost every block.

Except for the ATM machine by the door, nothing about this storefront seems to have changed in half a century; it’s a sliver of the city frozen in time.

Old subway signage of a less complicated city

April 10, 2017

It’s always fun to come across vintage subway signs at stations across New York—and often they can tell us something about how people got around underground in a very different 20th century city.

Take a look at this entrance at the Fulton Street Station downtown. The contemporary signage is functional and color-coded.

But it’s so much lovelier the old-school way, when the sign above the stairs simply tells you this will take you “down town.”

At the Lorimer Street stop in Williamsburg you can switch to the “crosstown line,” a phrase I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use when they say they’re about to jump on the G train.

It makes Brooklyn sound like one big town (or city, as it once was, of course) rather than collection of very different neighborhoods it is today.

“Subway Entrance” above this stairwell attached to the Trinity Building on Lower Broadway is done up in wonderful serif style. No train names or letters; its simplicity tells you everything you need to know.

Here’s one modern touch to get a kick out of: the stairs first lead you to a Subway sandwich shop.

This Canal Street sign might be older than SoHo

March 27, 2017

I can’t be the only person in New York in love with the Canal Rubber sign—a can’t-miss yellow, red, and black throwback to Canal Street’s days as an industrial and art supply center.

Canal Rubber has been in business here near Greene Street since 1954.

That year, Ellis Island closed its doors, On the Waterfront hit movie theaters, teen gangs were making news headlines, and the desolate neighborhood not yet known as Soho was called Hell’s Hundred Acres (for all the fires in the cast-iron buildings used for manufacturing).

Or it went by no name at all, because no one wanted to be there.

A Tribeca spaghetti sauce ad returns to view

March 20, 2017

Ragu has been mass producing its popular tomato sauces since the 1940s. But I’d guess this wonderfully preserved full-color ad for Ragu spaghetti sauce dates to the 1970s.

It’s on the side of a restaurant on Sixth Avenue just below Canal Street. What a visual treat, coincidentally near the once-thriving Little Italy in Soho and Greenwich Village, where store-bought sauce might be considered an insult!