Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

Two early Bronx subway signs that still point the way “up town”

March 13, 2023

The blue and white tiles are obscured by decades of grime, edged out of the way by brighter yet featureless subway signage at a Bronx IRT station.

I tried my best to brighten them up digitally and make them look as delightful as they probably did in 1919, when this station, at Hunts Point, opened. No camera filter did them justice. So try to overlook the filth and feel the magic of seeing “Up Town” spelled out as two separate words.

Unfortunately there were no corresponding “Down Town” signs in this station; they were probably damaged years ago, then carted away by the MTA.

But you can still come across similar olds-school tiled signs in other early stations—like the Chambers Street IRT on the West Side, which features bright, clean “Up Town” and “Down Town” directionals.

The bright colors and small figures of a Depression-era Midtown block

March 6, 2023

Eighth Avenue and 56th Street today looks nothing like it did when painter Lucille Blanch captured this otherwise ordinary block south of Columbus Circle 93 years ago.

Today, modern office buildings and apartment towers obscure the view of the Argonaut Building—the castle-like white structure that still stands down the block on Broadway and 57th Street. The enormous billboards are long gone, too.

The church below it, the flamboyant Broadway Tabernacle, met the wrecking ball in the 1970s. The tenement with the empty storefront next to the tire shop has also disappeared, replaced by a McDonald’s.

This stretch of West Midtown in the 1920s was known as the automobile showroom district, which explains the tire store and what look like car dealerships on the left-hand corner and in the middle of the block.

Lucile Blanch made a living as a painter, departing her Minnesota hometown to study at the Art Students League on West 57th Street on scholarship. She then became involved with the Fourteenth Street School, a group of artists with a social realist bent.

In 1930, she would have been 35 years old. Why she chose this corner to paint remains a mystery. But her depiction of the bright, colorful cityscape dwarfing the small, low-key residents might be saying something about the power of the urban environment over its residents caught in the toll of the Depression.

(Hat tip to Village Preservation’s Off the Grid blog, which included this painting recently in a post about unheralded female artists living and/or working South of Union Square.)

[Second image: Peter A. Juley/Wikipedia]

Decoding the words on a mystery faded food ad in the Meatpacking District

February 27, 2023

If you’ve been to one of the upper floors of the Whitney Museum lately, you’ve probably found your way to the exterior staircase and taken in the spectacular view of the Meatpacking District.

Looking east, you can see triangular blocks of mid-19th century converted dwelling houses and early 20th century warehouses. Just below you is the beginning of the steel railway that became known as the High Line. Along the remaining cobblestone streets are awnings attached to what were once food stalls when the neighborhood was known as Gansevoort Market.

The view from the Whitney offers another remnant of the Meatpacking District of old: a faded ad on a five-story, flatiron-shaped brick building built in 1887.

“Burnham’s Clam Chowder” it appears to say, on flat end of 53-61 Gansevoort Street. This former loft building was once the headquarters of the E.S. Burnham Company, a manufacturer of clam chowder and clam bouillon, according to the Gansevoort Market Historic District Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

A much clearer image of the ad can be seen in the photo above, taken in the 1930s or 1940s. The clam chowder ad makes sense here, especially considering that on the Gansevoort Street side of the building, the words “clam chowder clam bouillon” can still be seen from the street. (Below photo from 2016)

But wait, on closer inspection of “clam,” it looks like some other letters are mixed in there. According to the LPC report, the clam chowder ad is “superimposed with ‘beet wine.'”

But Walter Grutchfield, whose wonderful website explores the backstory of many faded ads in New York City, seems to think it might be “beef wine,” based on a “great restorative tonic” the Burnham company sold when it was doing business on Gansevoort Street.

Beef wine? It doesn’t sound very appetizing. But I like the idea that one old ad was painted over another, a palimpsest from perhaps a century ago on a brick and mortar New York City building.

The Burnham company left the premises in 1929, according to Grutchfield. Considering the pool on the roof, you’ve probably figured out that 53-61 Gansevoort Street no longer functions as a food manufacturing site. Today, it’s the RH Guesthouse—with rooms once used for canning chowder starting at two grand per night!

[Second image: NYPL]

A grimy subway sign points the way to an uptown Presidential mansion

February 20, 2023

You’re forgiven if you fail to see it as you rush to make your train: a neglected off-white plaque surrounded by filthy subway tiles at the 157th Street subway station.

But it’s a shame if this curious old sign doesn’t catch your eye, because it clues you in to Presidential history and New York City’s crucial role in the Revolutionary War.

In August 1776, George Washington, the commander of the fledging Continental Army, suffered a bruising defeat in the Battle of Brooklyn. In September, he made his way to the Roger Morris mansion—a circa-1765 hilltop country house high above Harlem.

Roger Morris was a British army colonel who had left the city, so Washington made the Federal-style mansion his temporary headquarters before the battle of Harlem Heights. Washington then moved on to White Plains, and the now-vacant country estate became the headquarters of both British and Hessian commanders as the war progressed.

In 1810, two decades after Washington became the first U.S. President, a wealthy couple named Eliza and Stephen Jumel took up residence—hence the mansion’s current name, the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Today, this oldest house in Manhattan is a museum on lovely Jumel Terrace in appropriately named Washington Heights.

I don’t think any museum visitors claim to have seen Washington’s ghost. But Eliza Jumel, an infamous social climber who later married Aaron Burr, supposedly haunts the mansion.

[Second image: Wikipedia]

What the figures on the doors of a Third Avenue Gap store tell us about the building

January 23, 2023

The front doors caught my eye first. Heavy and bronze, these two doors at the entrance of the Gap store at Third Avenue and 85th Street feature intricate carvings and curious allegorical figures reminiscent of ancient Greece.

On one door, a woman balances a locomotive engine in her left hand and grips a caduceus in the right. Behind her is a sailing ship, and beside her head are the words “commerce and industry.”

The man on the opposite door holds a staff with a beehive at the top. In his other hand is a key, and at his feet a cornucopia. “Finance and savings” is inscribed at his shoulder.

Classical figures like these are pretty much the last thing you’d expect to find as you walk into the Gap. But the same set of doors also exist on the 85th Street side of the building, and the allegorical images offer a solid clue about what this unusually dignified building in the heart of Yorkville was built for.

The building was once the home of Yorkville Bank—an Italian Renaissance Revival structure built to serve this growing middle- and working-class immigrant neighborhood in 1905, according to a 2012 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

The cast-bronze doors, fabricated by John Polachek Bronze & Iron Company of Long Island City, arrived after a renovation in the 1920s.

Four stories of limestone, brick, terra cotta, and granite, the building has the imposing, fortress-like look of a typical bank building from turn of the century New York City—when savings bank failures weren’t uncommon and financial institutions wanted to instill a sense of trust and strength to entice potential customers.

The allegorical figures are part of this strength and trust. The train the woman holds is a symbol of industry; the caduceus suggests commerce, according to the LPC report. The key in the man’s hands represents prudence, and the cornucopia is a sign of plenty.

The beehive is a traditional symbol of thrift, one found on the remains of other former bank buildings across Gotham.

Yorkville Bank’s rise and fall (above, about 1940) seem to mimic the rise and fall of Yorkville. A solid neighborhood bank in the first part of the 20th century, it merged with Manufacturer’s Trust Company in the 1920s. Business slowed as Yorkville’s German, Hungarian, and Czech immigrant communities dispersed and the neighborhood began its slow absorption by the Upper East Side.

The bank closed in 1990, after which it underwent a renovation into a more up-to-date commercial space. A year later, the Gap moved in.

Thankfully the Gap kept the doors, as well as the charming “YB” (Yorkville Bank, of course!) inscription above them.

Bank buildings all over New York City have been repurposed for other businesses—here’s one on the Upper West Side that now serves as a CVS, and another on Lafayette Street that’s become a Duane Reade.

[Fourth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

Discovering another vintage two-letter phone exchange on a West Side sign

January 16, 2023

Ephemeral New York readers know what a kick it is to come upon a faded ad, store sign, or building plaque that features an old New York City two-letter phone exchange—the kind that were officially replaced with numbers in the 1960s.

I’ve seen a few other Abramson Brothers plaques around Manhattan over the years. But this one, on West 52nd Street in Hell’s Kitchen, was new to me.

I concede these plaques look too spiffy to be made in the 1960s. Perhaps they come from the 1970s or 1980s, when generations of New Yorkers who grew up with the two-letter exchanges continued to be charmed by them.

Or maybe this real estate investment firm just likes the idea of a phone number acting as a geographical marker for where a household or business is located.

MU stood for Murray Hill—and 501 Fifth Avenue is on the edge of Murray Hill’s official borders.

The blazing colors and old-school design of two Manhattan store signs

December 26, 2022

It’s a special thrill to come across a vintage New York City store sign that’s never caught your eye before. The design, the typeface, the colors—it all hits you at once, making you feel like you’ve found a magical spot in Gotham where mom-and-pop shops aren’t the exception and time stands still.

That’s the feeling I had after happening upon these two time machine signs a while back, one on the Lower East Side and the other on the opposite end of Manhattan in East Harlem.

On Essex Street is the signage for fourth generation-run M. Schames & Son Paints. I don’t know how old the sign is, but M. Schames got its start in 1927, according to the company Facebook page. The business appears to have moved to 90 Delancey Street.

The sign for Casa Latina, on East 116th Street, is another portal to the New York of the 1950s or 1960s, when Italian Harlem transformed into Spanish Harlem and salsa music came into its own.

Family owned and operated for over 50 years, the shop sells Latin music, instruments, and collectibles, per their Facebook page. Actually, make that sold. According to nycgo.com, Casa Latina is no longer in business. At least the wonderful sign is still there.

Looking for the backstory of an abandoned Chelsea tavern

December 5, 2022

For years I’ve walked by the delightfully shabby Joe’s Tavern sign at the corner of Tenth Avenue and 25th Street.

I’ve never seen the vintage vertical beauty lit up, unfortunately. Even stranger, I’ve never seen any sign of life inside 258 Tenth Avenue, which once housed what I imagine to have been an old-school neighborhood bar on the ground floor. The place has been long left to the elements, its facade papered over with fashion ads.

Who was Joe? There’s not much to go on. The Lost City blog, now defunct but still a lively source of New York City historical insight, featured the sign in a 2013 post. A year later, a commenter wrote that Joe was the “very friendly” Hungarian-American old man behind the counter.

What happened to Joe, and why his bar was abandoned as far back as the 1990s, remains unknown. There’s not a lot of clues to go on. Old city directories aren’t pointing the way. I made out the faded outline of “258” in an old-timey font above the entrance, but that’s about it.

Still, a look into 258 Tenth Avenue’s backstory didn’t come up totally empty. Turns out, the tavern roots of this place go back to the 19th century.

According to an 1895 edition of the New York Times, a man named Martin P. Grealish ran a saloon in this very spot. Grealish made the paper because he was moving his saloon down to 200 Tenth Avenue. (Understandable, as his landlord was raising his rent).

A 1920s New-York Historical Society photo (second image above) reveals that the site had become the Majestic Restaurant. Perhaps the Majestic turned into a restaurant thanks to Prohibition…then returned to a watering hole once that national experiment was over.

This Brooklyn corner store has one of the last vintage soda signs

October 24, 2022

They used to be all over New York City on practically every block: simple deli or drugstore signs that featured the name of the store along with iconic emblems for national soda brands.

Officially, they’re called “privilege signs,” because by offering the store the free sign, the brand had the privilege of free advertising. The store benefited as well, since the logos for Coke, Pepsi, or another brand brought in thirsty or hungry customers looking for a product they recognized.

Slowly these privilege signs have disappeared, and today, it’s rare to come across one. Which is why I stopped in my tracks when I spotted this vintage beauty for Millys Mini Market on Berry and South Second Streets in Williamsburg. Sadly, it’s one of the last of a dwindling breed.

Over the years Ephemeral New York has featured some last remaining privilege signs. I can’t guarantee any of them still exist, but if you’re an old-school sign enthusiast, check them out here.

Who carved a horse above the entrance to this East Side brownstone?

October 3, 2022

East 116th Street between Second and Third Avenues has a long history as a bustling shopping strip—first as a crosstown street between the Second and Third Avenue Els in the heart of Harlem’s Little Italy, and since the 1940s and 1950s as a main thoroughfare for predominantly Hispanic East Harlem.

235 East 116th Street

The brownstone-fronted houses on the north side of the street form a handsome, stately row. Built when Italian laborers began moving into an area already colonized by German, Irish, and Jewish residents, you can imagine that these homes were owned by more middle-class folks in what was otherwise a working-class and poor neighborhood.

But on Number 235, which borders a historic church, something curious is carved above the entrance. It’s the image of a horse, in motion with no saddle, framed by a rectangular space set inside an oval.

Underneath the horse are what look like Greek letters. Google tells me this translates into, well, “horse.”

Number 235, in 1929, is to the right of the church; see the oval above the door

I’ve found myself passing by this horse a few times in recent months, and it’s an unusual relic, something I’ve never seen on any other brownstone entrances. Based on the black and white images of the house below, it seems that the horse has been here since at least 1929.

Stables and carriage houses in pre-automobile New York City often had an ornamental horse head or horse image outside the building, but this brownstone—built in 1879—doesn’t appear to have ever been used as a boarding space for horses.

From 1939-1941

Could someone involved in the carriage industry have lived here? Newspaper archives indicate the brownstone was home to Charles Schneider in 1907, profession unknown. In the 1910s and 1920s it was occupied by Salvatore A. Cotillo and his family. Cotillo was a Fordham-educated lawyer who immigrated from Naples as a boy and later became a state senator and then a city judge. Other owners and occupants haven’t been identified.

The horse could be a symbol of sorts, harkening back to ancient Greek or Roman mythology. Or maybe a resident created it on a whim? It’s here to stay, and I’d love to know the origins.

[Third image: NYPL; fourth image: New York City Department of Records & Information Services]