Archive for the ‘Random signage’ Category

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]

Why “Houston Street” is pronounced that way

March 22, 2021

You can always spot a New York newbie by their pronunciation of wide, bustling Houston Street—as if they were in Texas rather than Manhattan.

But the way New Yorkers pronounce the name of this highway-like crosstown road that serves as a dividing line for many downtown neighborhoods begs the question: Why do we say “house-ton,” and what’s the backstory of this unusual street name, anyway?

It all started in 1788 with Nicholas Bayard III, owner of a 100-acre farm located roughly in today’s SoHo (one boundary of which is today’s Bayard Street).

Bayard was having financial difficulties, so he sold off parcels of his farm and turned them into real estate in the growing young metropolis, according to a 2017 New York Times piece. “The property was converted into 35 whole or partial blocks within seven east-west and eight north-south streets, on a grid pattern,” explained the Times.

Bayard decided to name one of those east-west streets after the new husband of his daughter Mary, William Houstoun (above)—a three-time delegate to the Continental Congress from Georgia. Houstoun’s unusual last name comes from his ancient Scottish lineage, states Encyclopedia of Street Names and Their Origins by Henry Moscow.

The street name, Houstoun, is spelled correctly in the city’s Common Council minutes from 1808, wrote Moscow, as well as on an official map from 1811, the year the grid system was invented. (It’s also spelled right on the 1822 map above).

In the 19th century, the city developed past this former northern boundary street. East Houston Street subsumed now-defunct North Street on the East Side and extended through the West Side (above photo at Varick Street in 1890). At some point, the spelling was corrupted into “Houston.”

The Times proposes a possible reason why the “u” was cut: Gerard Koeppel, author of City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, thought it could have to do with Sam Houston emerging in the public consciousness in the 1840s and 1850s as senator and governor of Texas.

Whatever the reason, the new spelling stuck—with the original late 18th century pronunciation.

[Top Image: Danny Lyon/US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikipedia; Second image: Wikipedia; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: MCNY 1971 by George Roos x2010.11.763]

A ghost sign for a family business on Essex Street

March 15, 2021

Back in 2010, a lounge and restaurant called Beauty & Essex opened in a cavernous space at 146 Essex Street—a glittery addition to Lower East Side nightlife back when the neighborhood still had a grittier edge.

Beauty & Essex is temporarily closed, according to Yelp. But there’s another reason to do a walk-by at this address: to see the faded ghost sign that still remains on the facade decades after it went up in the 1960s.

This spot used to be the home base of M. Katz & Sons Fine Furniture—a business founded in 1906 out of a Lower East Side tenement by Meilich Katz, according to the store website. In the 1930s, M. Katz’s sons opened a shop on Stanton Street, and by the late 1960s, a third generation relocated to 146 Essex Street (below, an undated photo of the Essex Street sign).

M. Katz’s still sells furniture; a fifth generation of the Katz family occupies a smaller space on Orchard Street these days. The facade on Essex Street is a palimpsest of a century-old family business still bearing the founder’s name.

[Second photo: Yellowbot]

Tracing Berenice Abbott’s steps in today’s Bowery

March 15, 2021

After spending the 1920s as a cutting edge portrait photographer in Paris, Berenice Abbott returned to the United States to find that her documentary-like style of photography was out of fashion.

In New York, Abbott “was unable to secure space at galleries, have her work shown at museums, or continue the working relationships she had forged with a number of magazine publications,” states the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Lucky for Abbott—and for fans of her unromanticized images that speak for themselves—the Federal Art Project came calling. In 1935, it gave her the means to photograph the streets, buildings, and people of New York City. More than 300 resulting images were collected in Changing New York, published in 1939.

Though Abbott aimed her camera all over Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, she was especially drawn to the Lower East Side, specifically the Bowery. At the time, the Bowery was a “Victorian entertainment district turned skid row, which she likened to ‘wandering through hell,'” according to the text of a 1997 edition of the book by the Museum of the City of New York.

Retracing Abbott’s steps through the Bowery, as documented in Changing New York, is possible today because she kept track of the addresses of the three storefronts she captured.

The top photo, at 103 Bowery, might be one of Abbott’s most famous New York images. This “hash house,” as the Blossom Restaurant was known per the MCNY’s Changing New York, occupied the ground floor while Jimmy the Barber worked out of the basement. The two men in the shot have the harsh expressions expected of men who catered to Bowery bums.

Below it is the storefront today. It’s still a food establishment, but the space has been remodeled. The aura of danger and depression are gone.

The striking storefront—and colorful claims designed to lure men of few means—of the Tri-Boro Barber School (“world’s most up-to-date system”) probably appealed to Abbott. The school was at 264 Bowery, which was lined with barber shops at the time, states the MCNY’s updated Changing New York: “Upon completion of a 10-week course, a student was a ‘full-fledged professional barber’ and could find a job at a starting union wage of $22.50 per week.” Below it is 264 Bowery now, with its similar doorway but ghostly, empty space.

This hardware store at 316-318 Bowery has the crammed feel of a dollar store, proving that the tradition of an overload of seasonal merchandise and lots of sale signs lives on in 21st century New York. “Hardware emporiums, catering to tradesmen from all over the city and day laborers who lived nearby, flourished on the Bowery,” states the MCNY’s Changing New York. The storefront today appears to be another COVID casualty.

Would Abbott be as drawn to the Bowery of 2021 as she was to the Bowery of the 1930s (above, under the elevated at Division Street and Bowery)?

Probably not. This storied main drag that had a brief fling as an elite address in the early 19th century before becoming synonymous with tawdry entertainment, flophouses, and cheap bars now resembles many other Manhattan streets of the 21st century—lacking the signs of desperate humanity Abbott was attracted to.

[Top photo: Smithsonian National Museum of American History; third photo: Artnet; fifth photo: Wikipedia; sixth photo: MutualArt]

An old New York phone exchange on 47th Street

March 8, 2021

Spotted on an unremarkable building on West 47th Street in the Diamond District: an old-school New York City phone exchange, in this case “MU.”

What does it stand for? Murray Hill, of course, the neighborhood where the real estate company that put up this plaque is based.

It’s getting harder to find these two-letter exchanges, which were replaced by numerals in the early 1960s. But they’re out there—especially in the boroughs outside Manhattan.

An ode to construction workers on a 57th Street Art Deco tower

February 8, 2021

There’s a lot to love about the Fuller Building, the Art Deco-Art Nouveau beauty built in 1929 that rises 40 stories over Madison Avenue and 57th Street.

A few favorites: the black granite facade on the lower floors, geometric designs at the top of the tower, and the medallions on the lobby floor showing various buildings constructed by the Fuller Company, an early developer of steel-skeleton skyscrapers. (These included the Flatiron Building, which was called the Fuller Building when it opened in 1902—but “flatiron” stuck because of the shape of the lot it was built on.)

Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of this iconic tower sits above the entrance: two idealized and shirtless construction workers flanking a clock while standing in front of a cityscape of skyscrapers.

The sculptures, by Elie Nadelman, seem to be an ode to the men who literally constructed the Fuller Building and other mighty towers that raised New York’s skyline higher toward the heavens in the early 20th century.

It makes sense. The Fuller Company was a construction company that depended on the strength and skill of men in the building trades. Without these workers and advancements in engineering, Manhattan would have remained a low-rise metropolis topping out at six or so stories.

The former lives of a shabby Midtown brownstone

December 14, 2020

When you think of Madison Avenue in Midtown, brownstones don’t generally come to mind. But in the late 19th century, rows of these iconic chocolate-brown houses for the city’s upper classes lined this new residential district in the East 40s, north of posh Murray Hill.

Not many survive today; this stretch of Madison has long been subsumed by commercial buildings. (Below, in the 1920s). But the modest brownstone at number 423, between 48th and 49th Street, is still hanging on.

Madison Avenue at 48th Street, 1925

Hiding behind scaffolding and wedged between two office towers, this ghost of the Gilded Age certainly has stories to tell.

It’s not clear when it went residential to commercial, but by the 1880s it was home to J.H. Morse’s School for Boys—a hint that the neighborhood was probably still overwhelmingly residential and populated by families.

Frank Bruns’ latest delivery wagon in 1912

What kind of school was J.H, Morse’s? It sounds very similar to the prep schools of today’s New York. Run by a Harvard grad, the school’s main purpose was to “prepare boys thoroughly for the best colleges and scientific schools,” according to a 2014 New Republic article.

423 Madison Avenue in 1940, with the vertical Longchamps sign

In the early 1900s, number 423 was a grocery run by Frank Bruns. This grocer made news as an early adapter of gasoline-powered automobile for deliveries. “In 1905 he placed in service a Peerless car fitted with a delivery body, and from his own statement secured more in the way of advertising value than otherwise, though its service was by no means unsatisfactory,” stated The Horseless Age, published in 1912.

By the 1940s, the brownstone had a new life as a Longchamps, a popular Midcentury restaurant chain with several locations around Manhattan. “Named for the race track in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, the first elegant Longchamps opened in 1919, and by the 1950’s there were 10 in Manhattan, most clustered around midtown,” states the New York Times FYI column in 1998.

What kind of place was Longchamps? The restaurants typically featured Art Deco style, cooked up dishes like oxtail ragout and crabmeat a la Dewey, and was a decent place to get a drink—seen above in a 1933 Daily News photo showing fashionable New Yorkers sharing a table and enjoying cocktails.

The Longchamps at 423 Madison also had an early neon sign, which went vertically down the side of the brownstone and put a crack in the cornice. Long after the chain moved out in the 1960s (Longchamps went bankrupt by the mid-1970s, according to the Times), the sign remained; Lost City has a photo of it from 2007.

Today, the sign is gone, but the cracked cornice remains. Another local restaurant chain occupies the ground floor. The brownstone’s upper floors are apartments—it’s a residence once again.

Scaffolding keeps us from seeing it all. But you can imagine its former glory as a refined Gilded Age single-family home, likely surrounded by similar brownstones. Some of these still exist in Midtown but tend to be obscured by taller buildings, as 423 is.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: New York Times 1888; fourth image: The Horseless Age; fifth and sixth images: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; seventh image: New York Daily News, 1933]

A mystery manhole cover on a Midtown block

November 30, 2020

East 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues has a history. This stable block became the center of the city’s trotting activity in the 1870s. By the turn of the century, it was home to hotels, clubs, and Delmonico’s on the Fifth Avenue end.

So it follows that this distinguished street would have an unusual manhole cover on the sidewalk on the south side—one that was probably quite pretty a century ago, with glass inside the many holes arranged in a six-sided mystery shape.

Gerard Iron Works is the maker, and this is the first time I’ve seen this ironworks company’s name on a manhole cover in the city. The address is 157th Street and Gerard Avenue…which would place this manufacturer in the Bronx.

Gerard Iron Works may not have lasted long on Gerard Avenue. It looks like by 1916, the company had moved to Nassau County, per a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article.