Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

A mystery studio building in Washington Heights

June 24, 2019

The tan and brown walkup at Broadway and 153rd Street isn’t particularly eye-catching.

But around the corner on the facade is something curious. Carved into a decorative, ribbon-like banner over the entrance are the words “Trinity Studio.”

Trinity would be for Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum, the sloping burial ground that borders 153rd Street and stretches all the way across Broadway to Riverside Drive and 155th Street.

Opened by Trinity Church in 1843, this Trinity cemetery is the final resting ground of the city’s famous and infamous, from John Jacob Astor to Eliza Jumel to Ed Koch.

But Trinity Studio (above, in 1910) presents a mystery.

Did the church or burial ground have anything to do with the studio building?

Dedicated work-living spaces for artists popped up around the turn of the century, like this studio building overlooking Bryant Park.

Trinity Studio appears to be independent of the church, and not for artists necessarily but for “refined people” looking for a 2-3 room uptown pad.

An article in the New York Sun in 1910 states that the building “will be erected from designs by Emery Roth as architect at the southeast corner of Broadway and 153rd Street.”

As this ad illustrates, the main draws were the “perpetual north light” and “magnificent view of Hudson and Palisades.”

Today it’s a coop, and 1-2 room studios are a lot pricier than the $35 (a month, I imagine) going rate in 1910.

[Third image: MCNY, 1910: X2011.34.1275; fourth image: New York Herald]

The ghostly flower shop sign in Carroll Gardens

June 10, 2019

How long ago did Vaccarino’s Flowers close up shop on Court and Sackett Streets in Carroll Gardens?

That’s the question I asked myself when I came across the former florist’s phantom faded sign—covered for many years until late 2018 by a Douglas Elliman real estate office, according to neighborhood blog Pardon Me for Asking.

Turns out Vaccarino’s was in the flower business since at least 1938, though in another location on nearby Hicks Street.

That’s according to this Christmas season ad from a newspaper called The Brooklyn Citizen. (Phone number: TR for Triangle!)

I’m not sure when the shop moved to Court Street, but it operated at this site by 1971, in a working class Carroll Gardens dominated by Italian immigrant families and the businesses they ran—a handful of which still thrive today.

[Second image: The Brooklyn Citizen, December 1938]

What a 70th Street coal hole cover has to say

June 3, 2019

New York streets are still dotted with 19th century manhole covers—decorative, sometimes artistic portals that lead to the gritty underground city of electrical wires, gas lines, and water pipes.

But you’re less likely to stumble upon coal hole covers. By popping the lid, a coal delivery company could easily get coal for heating into the basement of a home, then be on its way to the next house on the block.

This cover, by the former M.J. Dempsey Iron Foundry in the far West 50s on 11th Avenue, is embedded into the sidewalk on East 70th Street, a pristine monument to Manhattan’s departed foundries and how houses were heated before steam.

The mystery of an East Village lager beer sign

May 20, 2019

I’m not the first old sign enthusiast who came across this beauty of a beer sign on the tenement at 317 East Fifth Street.

Grieve wrote it up back in January, and I’m sure other fans walking along this quiet East Village block noticed the ancient signage, too.

“S. Cort Wines & Lager Beer” the faded outline reads on the left side of the store, over a large window supported by what appears to be a Corinthian-like column.

Looks like the same words appear on the right side of the storefront, which is divided by the building’s stoop.

Apparently workers who were recently renovating this ground floor storefront between First and Second Avenues uncovered evidence of this old East Village liquor store.

Or was Cort’s actually a bar—one that poured many a growler for locals as well cops from the Ninth Precinct a few doors down?

The tenement was constructed in 1867, but the basement-level store wasn’t put in place until 1893, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation via an update at EVG.

But it’s still a mystery when this establishment operated.

Considering the fact that Cort is a German name, it wouldn’t surprise me if S. Cort’s dates back to the turn of the century, when today’s East Village was 19th century New York’s Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany stronghold.

Two beautiful mystery signs on a Flatiron facade

May 13, 2019

Lots of older New York buildings have stylized signs that contain the building’s street address.

But none are as unusual and mysterious as the two signs affixed to the facade of 144 Fifth Avenue, a four-story, late 19th century walkup near 19th Street.

“One Hundred Forty Four” the first one playfully proclaims. “Fifth Avenue” reads the second sign.

Both signs look like medallions or shields, yet the numerals and letters seem inspired by Art Nouveau—a type of design popular in the early 20th century in Europe that didn’t quite take off the same way in New York.

Art Nouveau borrows its twists and curves from nature, and each sign has what looks like flowers drooping at the bottom.

Who added these to the building? It’s a mystery. (At left, 144 Fifth Avenue in 1940.)

However, at the turn of the century the building was occupied by a furniture dealer and decorator, according to the Evening World. Later it housed an art gallery called Cottier & Co.

Perhaps one of these artistically minded occupants thought to create the signs, which blend in behind the fire escape and are almost impossible to see.

[Third photo: NYC Tax Photo Department of Records]

The 1868 rowhouses built into Bloomingdale’s

May 13, 2019

Stand at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue and look up at the Art Deco main entrance of Bloomingdale’s.

As you take in the enormity of this low-rise, black and gray department store, you might think it consists of one uniform building extending all the way to Third Avenue.

But halfway down 60th Street, you’ll see a modern-day time capsule connecting the Lexington Avenue and Third Avenue ends of the store.

Here is a stretch of cream-colored rowhouses with fanciful details and the kind of mansard roofs that were all the rage in the Gilded Age city.

These rowhouses, once known as 162-170 East 60th Street, were built in 1868 and actually predate the Bloomingdale’s store by 18 years.

“The five buildings, a picturesque side-street surprise that has escaped demolition at least once, were developed as a tide of post-Civil-War rowhouses swept up the East Side,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 1990.

The rowhouses “were probably like others on the street shown in later views: high-stooped brownstones in the Italianate style, three windows wide, with a low fourth floor under a modest mansard roof,” wrote Gray.

Bloomingdale’s acquired the rowhouses the way they acquired the land on the rest of the block from Third to Lexington Avenues and 59th to 60th Streets—in pieces in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In the 1880s, three were turned into a store annex, and at some point they may also have served as a loading dock.

Today, these five former upscale residences sandwiched in the middle of Bloomingdale’s go unnoticed by most shoppers, even with the old “Bloomingdale Brothers” sign over the street-level windows.

[Second image: pdxhistory.com]

A faded East Village sign for a glazier’s workshop

May 6, 2019

Ideal Glass is a nondescript name for a glass business. Lots of products and services were “ideal” in the mid-20th century—like the old Ideal Hosiery store on Grand Street, which had its own wonderful 1950s sign.

And who was Samuel Cohen’s son, or Samuel Cohen, for that matter? The glass makers who ran this store at 20-22 East Second Street in the East Village may have been lost to the ages.

Since 2004 the garage-like building has been occupied by Ideal Glass, the performance space.

They pay homage to the previous tenants here with this note on their website: the “original space at 22 E 2nd St was transformed from a 1950’s glazier’s workshop into an independent gallery space and art collective.”

What two 19th century church fences tell you

May 6, 2019

Two of Manhattan’s oldest houses of worship, St. Mark’s Church and Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, both have lovely fences around their churchyards. But each fence is very different.

The black cast-iron fence at St. Mark’s (above, in 1936) was added to the church in 1828, according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation.

That’s almost 30 years after the Georgian-style church was completed, built beyond the city center on the former bouwerie, or farm, once owned by Dutch colonial governor Petrus Stuyvesant.

The fence around St. Patrick’s, on the other hand, is a red brick wall spanning Prince Street and continuing up Mulberry and Mott Streets on either side of the church grounds.

The brick wall went up in the 1830s (at left, in 1880), designed to protect Irish Catholic parishioners from the mobs of Nativist New Yorkers bent on letting them know they weren’t welcome.

Both churches are still houses of worship today. And as different as their fences seem, they do have one thing in common.

Each one has the name of the church’s street emblazoned on it: Second Avenue for St. Mark’s, and Mulberry and Prince Streets for St. Patrick’s.

These hard-to-see street names have survived on the fences for almost two centuries, letting New Yorkers know where they were in an era before Google maps and very visible street signs.

[Second image: NYPL]

Summoning the servants in the Frick mansion

April 29, 2019

Today, the former Henry Clay Frick mansion on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street is a spectacular art museum featuring Frick’s extensive collection of Old Masters paintings and 19th century decorative arts, among other treasures.

Frick always intended his mansion to become a museum after both he and his wife (bottom right) died—and as he planned, the museum opened to the public in 1935. (Frick died in 1919; his wife, Adelaide Childs Frick, in 1931.)

Since then, the second-floor family rooms where Frick lived with his wife and daughter, Helen (with her father at left in 1910) have been off-limits to the public, and just about all remnants of the family life of this titan of industry have vanished.

But there is one reminder of the private life of the Frick family, and it’s hiding in plain sight in the museum’s West Gallery.

In the middle of the hall, under Turner’s “The Arrival of a Packet-Boat, Evening,” are five small white buttons built into the wood molding of the wall. (Above, center)

The Fricks pressed these buttons to discreetly summon one of the dozens of servants who resided in the home with them. (The servant quarters were on the third floor.) Each button calls a specific servant or part of the house: butler, housekeeper, secretary, valet, and pantry.

Having buttons like these in every main room was probably totally normal among the extraordinarily rich the late 19th or early 20th century.

A typical wealthy household would employ a small army of servants—including a chef, cook, governess, gardener, driver, laundress, an all-purpose “useful man,” and a team of maids all taking care of different parts of the residence.

Next time you’re browsing the Frick, consider the servant buttons a ghostly reminder of the family that made their incredible art collection public. It’s also an emblem of a way of life that vanished when most rich New Yorkers abandoned single-family mansions for apartment house living by the 1920s.

[Top image: portrait by Edmund Charles Tarbell; second photo: courtesy of Caitlin Henningsen and the Frick Collection; fourth image: MCNY 1919 X2010.28.828]

The many lives of an East Houston Street theater

April 22, 2019

For almost two centuries, 143 East Houston Street has been many things to many people, from a church to a fight club to an indie movie house.

Now it’s destined for the wrecking ball, to be replaced by a $30 million office space. Let’s pay homage to this remnant of another city by looking at all the ways it served New Yorkers for 180 years.

Some of its history is murky, such as its beginnings as a church.

It’s not clear if it started out as a Dutch Reformed Church built in the 1840s (as a 2018 New York Times piece has it) or a German Evangelical Mission Church, dating back to 1838, stated The Real Deal.

By the late 19th century, a church and two parish houses on the site were run by German evangelicals, who perhaps also used the buildings as an immigrant meeting hall.

Remember, East Houston Street at the time was squarely in Kleindeutschland—the city’s vibrant Little Germany neighborhood.

By the early 1900s, Little Germany was departing for Yorkville, and 143 Houston became a fight club.

“The building’s showbiz debut probably came in 1908, when Jack Rose, a gambler and minor figure in organized crime, painted over the religious scenes and held prizefights there, calling it the ‘Houston Athletic Club,'” stated The Village Voice in 2001.

East Houston by then was also part of the burgeoning Yiddish theatre scene.

What would come next? A nickelodeon featuring Yiddish movies and vaudeville acts—run by an enterprising guy named Charlie Steiner.

“With minimal modification, the Athletic Club became the (above right) ‘Houston Hippodrome’: The entrepreneurs converted the pulpit into a stage, put the projection booth in the organ loft, and left the wooden pews,” according the The Village Voice.

“Admission was 10 cents, with a half-price matinee. Two proto-snack bars opened to serve the crowds: a dairy restaurant in the basement and Yonah Shimmel’s knish bakery, still in operation, next door.”

In 1913, the Houston Hippodrome was the site of a deadly stampede (above left). A projectionist thought he saw smoke and yelled fire! into the audience.

Two patrons were killed. The incident made headlines for weeks as city officials recognized the building as a potential firetrap.

“The old church building is dry, worm-eaten tinder, which would need nothing more than a match dropped in a corner to spring into blaze,” the paper quoted the coroner.

In 1916, Steiner rebuilt the Houston Hippodrome, with some of the wood from the old church still remaining, according to some sources.

He reopened it a year later as the Sunshine Theater (above); the name was changed in the 1930s to the Chopin Theater.

By 1945, the curtains went down and the building was turned into a hardware warehouse (above, in the 1980s).

In 2001, a restored and refurbished theater became the much-loved Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Today, it’s now the much-mourned Landmark Sunshine Cinema. The doors have been bricked in (above right) since 2018, and the unique facade stands defeated, awaiting its fate.

[Second photo: cinematreasures.com; third image: Evening World 1913; fourth photo: cinematreasures.com; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]