Archive for the ‘Sketchy hotels’ Category

The curious el train in the nocturnal 1930s city

April 5, 2021

When this lithograph was made by Leonard Pytlak in 1935, Manhattan’s elevated train lines were still screeching and lurching up and down the city’s major avenues.

Already made obsolete by subways and buses and soon to be dismantled, the el trains were noisy pieces of machinery that operated high above sidewalks yet helped transform late 19th century Gotham from a horse-powered town to a mighty metropolis of steel tracks.

But if the trains were emblems of the modern machine age, why is the lone figure crossing the nighttime street below the tracks so much larger than the train itself? And why is the street no wider than an alley?

My guess is that Pytlak might be trying to humanize the el train, giving us a Modernist scene of out of proportion shapes with the soft light of Post-Impressionism. There’s also the influence of Ashcan social realism here: a Belgian block city street lined with a hotel and tenements.

Born in 1910, Pytlak was a lithographer who studied at the Art Students League and worked for the New York City WPA Graphics Program from 1934 to 1941, according to the Illinois State Museum. The museum has this strangely alluring lithograph, titled “Uptown,” in its collection.

A Christmas feast at Midtown’s new Hotel Pabst

December 21, 2020

Never heard of the Hotel Pabst? You’re not alone. The nine-story tower with a steel skeleton swathed in limestone only existed from 1899 to 1902—built on the slender triangle formed by Broadway, Seventh Avenue, and 42nd Street at Longacre Square.

Hotel Pabst in Longacre Square

Run by the Pabst Brewing Company as part of a short-term effort to acquire hotels, the elegant hostelry at the upper reaches of the city’s theater district and lobster palaces was replaced by the New York Times‘ headquarters in 1904 (and Longacre Square became Times Square).

The spicy cover of the Hotel Pabst’s Christmas menu

The Pabst didn’t last, and no one alive today would remember it. But it needs to be noted that on December 25, 1900, the hotel sure cooked up a spectacular Christmas dinner.

The eye-popping Christmas dinner menu has been preserved by the New York Public Library in their Buttolph Collection of Menus. Between the carte de jour oyster offerings to the 20-plus desserts (plum pudding! Cream puffs!) are a dozen or so courses that must have taken an army of chefs to prepare.

Many of the dishes are the typical heavy fare of a hotel menu in New York of the era: terrapin a la Maryland, quail, stuffed turkey, filet of sole, prime beef, and lamb chops.

There’s a fair number of items borrowed from French menus, which makes sense, as French cuisine was seen as the most elegant at the time.

Some of the dishes are completely foreign to contemporary American tastes, however. Cold game pie, Philadelphia squabs, and reed ducks, anyone?

One thing stands out, though: Christmas dinner at a hotel in 1900 was certainly a feast. By the time you finished your Nesselrode pudding and revived yourself with your Turkish coffee, buttons must have been popping off your clothes!

[Top photo: MCNY 93.1.1.6427; menu: NYPL Buttolph Collection of Menus]

A famous poet forced to work in the NYC subway

November 9, 2020

Edwin Arlington Robinson earned his place in the literary canon with early 20th century poems like “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy.”

He was awarded three Pulitzers in the 1920s, and his verse, themed around loss and failure, is a staple of American poetry anthologies.

But before this, Robinson was a broke downtown poet so desperate for money, he took a job in the New York City subway—and he was dubbed “the poet in the subway” once recognition came his way later in life.

It wasn’t the kind of life Robinson seemed destined to live. Born in 1869 in Gardiner, Maine, to a wealthy family that discouraged his literary ambition, he attended Harvard (below photo, at age 19) and had some early success self-publishing his poetry.

Then in the 1890s, a recession claimed his family’s fortune. His parents and a brother died, and his brother’s wife, who Robinson was in love with, rejected him.

So Robinson left Maine and relocated to New York City, dedicating himself solely to writing poetry. He lived for some time in Greenwich Village at the Judson Hotel (above ad, 1905)—today’s Judson Hall, part of NYU, according to nycatelier.com.

In New York, “he lived in dire poverty and became alcoholic,” states a biography by the chairman of the Gardiner Library Association. “He took odd jobs and depended upon the financial support of friends to give him time to write.”

One of those odd jobs was in the subway. One source says Robinson was a “time checker” working with a construction crew, Americanpoems.com has it that he inspected loads of shale during the building of the subway system, which opened in 1904. (Below, subway construction at Christopher Street and West Fourth)

Finding time to write was a struggle, especially for a poet who described himself as “doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry. There was nothing else that interested me,” according to the Gardiner Library Association biography. (Subway excavation, below, at Park Avenue and 42nd Street)

Robinson’s days toiling in the subway would come to an end—thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s son Kermit.

“Kermit Roosevelt had studied some of [Robinson’s] poems at Groton and had been transfixed by their chilly beauty,” wrote Edmund Morris in Theodore Rex.

“The President had read them too, at his son’s urging, and agreed that Robinson had ‘the real spirit of poetry in him.'” (Above: Kermit Roosevelt with his dad and brothers, second from left)

Kermit discovered that Robinson was in dire poverty and struggling to support himself with his subway job. So the President, “in strict secrecy waiving all civil-service rules, had offered Robinson jobs in the immigration service or the New York Customs House, which latter the poet accepted.”

[Robinson was following in the 19th century footsteps of Herman Melville, also born wealthy but took a job as a customs inspector to support himself]

“A tacit condition of employment was that, in exchange for his desk and $2,000 a year, he should work ‘with a view toward helping American letters,’ rather than the receipts of the U.S. Treasury.”

Roosevelt, a fanatical reader, even wrote a positive review of Robinson’s ‘Children of the Night,’ the volume Kermit had given him (above left). “A poet can do much more for his country than the proprietor of a nail factory,” TR once said.

With a steady source of money, Robinson could devote himself more to his largely solitary life of writing poetry. He died of cancer at New York Hospital in Manhattan in 1935.

[Top image: Lila Cabot Perry, 1918; second image: New-York Tribune; third image: wikiwand; fourth and fifth images: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: Corbis; seventh image: bookedupac.com; eighth image: Wikipedia]

A sidewalk relic of the Hotel Carter’s better days

September 21, 2020

The Hotel Carter has been closed for months now—for good or because of a renovation, I’m not sure.

The infamous West 43rd Street hostelry, named the dirtiest hotel in America several times by TripAdvisor and the site of numerous suicides and a few horrific murders during its 90-year history (including this one in 2007), is currently hidden from view by scaffolding.

Sticking out on the sidewalk, however, is a Hotel Carter icon I’d never noticed before: this sidewalk sign—with the Carter name spelled out in script, a signifier that this is a hotel of class and taste.

Of course, the Hotel Carter was neither of these, at least in its later incarnation. Opened in 1930 as the Hotel Dixie (complete with its own basement bus station, see the sign for it at the far right in the photo below), the place was designed for business travelers who needed to be in the Times Square area.

The owners went bankrupt not long after that; the hotel changed hands over the years. The bus depot closed in 1957, unable to compete with the new Port Authority Bus Station around the corner on Eighth Avenue.

Rechristened the Hotel Carter in 1976, the hotel became largely a welfare hotel in the 1980s, though by 1984 it was so dangerous and decrepit, the city stopped sending people there, according to a 1989 Daily News article.

The Carter began attracting travelers again in the 1990s and 2000s, many of whom left illustrious scathing reviews (and photos of their bedbug-bitten skin).

Whatever becomes of the Carter, the wonderful vertical Hotel Carter sign is currently visible through the scaffolding.

Walk by and look up at it…and then down at the logo embedded in the sidewalk. If the Carter has a date with the wrecking ball soon, at least the sidewalk sign might stick around.

[Top image: Wikipedia; fourth image: New York City Department of Records and Information Services]

What became of the first, short-lived Plaza Hotel

January 6, 2020

When the Plaza Hotel finally opened its doors on October 1, 1890, the debut of this elegant, long-awaited hotel (construction began seven years earlier, but the developers needed more financing to finish it) at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South was heralded across the city.

This “magnificent” new building “was inspected by an immense number of people, and illimitable appropriation was bestowed upon the management for the almost perfect arrangements, elegance of decorations, etc,” wrote Brooklyn’s Standard Union newspaper.

King’s Handbook of New York City also gushed praise. “It is a palatial establishment…and it is sumptuously furnished,” stated the 1892 book. “There are 400 rooms…it is one of the grandest hotels in the world.”

Ads for the Plaza painted a luxurious image, like the one above. “Absolutely fireproof…Overlooking Central Park…the pioneer in the new hotel centre.”

Sounds a lot like the Plaza Hotel that’s been an icon of New York City for more than a century, right?

Except this isn’t the 19-story Plaza Hotel holding court on Fifth Avenue today, the one that was designed to be a skyscraper-high chateau in French Renaissance style.

These rave reviews actually describe the first Plaza Hotel—a more modest eight-story building that only stood at this elite corner of Manhattan for 15 years.

Why was it demolished, especially considering the swooning reception it received? Basically, “it was unprofitable,” according to The Encyclopedia of New York City, Second Edition.

The design of the first Plaza Hotel—called neo-Classical and Italianate by Inside the Plaza, by Ward Morehouse—also quickly became dated in a city of newer, more fanciful hotel buildings.

So the first Plaza Hotel was bought by a new developer, who had it demolished in 1905.

The second Plaza Hotel, “with three stories composed of rusticated marble, the rest white glazed brick, all topped by a three-story mansard roof,” according to Morehouse (those small windows peeking through the roof were for the servants rooms), went up in just two years.

The new Henry Hardenburgh-designed Plaza Hotel (which served more as a longterm residence than a per-night kind of place) opened to equally rabid fanfare and acclaim on October 1, 1907.

 Here it is at the end of 2019, still stunning in a transformed city.

[Top photo: MCNY X2012.61.31.9; second image: New York Times, 1894; third image: MCNY 2010.28.15; fourth image: MCNY 93.1.1.6467; fifth image: MCNY 93.1.3.1529; sixth image: Ephemeral New York]

The ghost chimney on an East Midtown building

December 2, 2019

Phantom buildings abound in New York, especially in the contemporary city, with so many structures that were once neighborhood fixtures getting the heave ho in an era of rampant renovation and reconstruction.

This ghost walkup on East 52nd Street and Third Avenue was probably a 19th century tenement home to several families—perhaps all sharing one slender chimney, its outline very creepily five years after the building was torn down and replaced by a Hilton Garden Inn.

If you look at it long enough, you might actually start envisioning puffs of smoke coming out the top.

A traveler’s 1971 snapshot below Herald Square

August 12, 2019

The taxi-choked traffic hasn’t changed much in the 48 years since a Dutch traveler named Hans Ketel snapped this photo while on a road trip across the United States.

But 32nd Street and Sixth Avenue, just south of Herald Square, is a very different place than it was in summer 1971—and not just because coconut oil (and billboards featuring women in bikinis selling it) have fallen out of favor.

For starters, 32nd Street is now Koreatown. Gimbels, a major department store in New York before going bankrupt in 1987, would have been on the right. J.C. Penney is there now.

The area is no longer the upper reaches of what used to be known as the Photo District, vestiges of which can still be found on some Flatiron side streets. (See the Olden Camera building in the center and Camera Barn to the left.)

Notice the French Renaissance building to the left? It’s the Hotel Martinique (you can just make out the old red vertical sign on the facade), built in 1898 as an apartment house before being turned into a high-class hotel.

By 1971, the Hotel Martinique’s glory days were long over. Two years after this photo was taken, it would become a welfare hotel until 1988—a place so notorious and dangerous, former residents are still posting stories of survival there on an Ephemeral New York post from 2008.

These days, it’s a spiffy Radisson.

[Photo copyright © Hans Ketel]

What a tourist saw on a trip to New York in 1970

July 8, 2019

In March 1970, a traveler now living in Rotterdam paid a visit to New York City.

Jaap Breedveld was in his 40s at the time. Like many tourists, he took photos that reflect the typical itinerary of a sightseer from overseas, like Times Square (above, with the old Howard Johnson’s at 46th Street on the left).

But Breedveld also captured images of New Yorkers at work, like this pretzel vendor on an unknown street, above. (Were pretzel carts really so low-key in 1970?)

During a foray into Chinatown, Breedveld immortalized these two men slicing fish on a barrel.

His photos also reflect a changed cityscape. In this image above, the Chrysler Building dominates the skyline, as it does today.

But Roosevelt Island—in 1970, still officially Welfare Island—has yet to be developed into a residential enclave, and the tramway wouldn’t start operating until 1976.

Midnight Cowboy fans will recognize the lovely Beaux-Arts building on the left in this image of Times Square.

It’s the Hotel Claridge, where Joe Buck gets a room after he arrives in New York. Opened in 1911 as luxury accommodations, the old hotel was torn down in 1972 to make way for an office building.

This photo appears to be taken from Battery Park and looks toward State Street; that must be the Elizabeth Ann Seton shrine and James Watson House in the center.

Today, the shrine and 18th century house are surrounded by boxy towers, one of which is going up in the photo.

This breathtaking view of Lower Manhattan contains no Twin Towers, and no Battery Park City. Both would be on maps by the end of the decade.

[Breedveld shared these previously unpublished images with Ephemeral New York. Special thanks to Peter van Wijk. ©Jaap Breedveld]

A home for Swiss immigrants on West 67th Street

March 11, 2019

New York was a city of immigrant benevolent societies in the 19th and early 20th century.

These private organizations provided temporary lodging, job help, and social connections to new arrivals (and struggling older residents) who hailed from a specific country of origin.

Some of the first of these “foreign relief” societies, as one 1892 guidebook called them, were set up in the early 1800s by New Yorkers of English, French, and German descent.

In 1832, the Swiss Benevolent Society joined them. Though fewer immigrants from Switzerland came to America than from other European nations, Swiss people did settle in New York—and like all newcomers, they benefited from ties to their home country.

The organization funded a home for Swiss immigrants first on Bleecker Street in 1873, then in a converted brownstone at 108 Second Avenue a decade later.

But downtown Manhattan was becoming a little too commercial (and downscale), so the society decided to build a new home uptown.

In 1905, the Swiss Home (at right) celebrated the opening of its new Gothic-inspired building at 35 West 67th Street. It was designed by a Swiss-born architect, John E. Scharsmith.

Supposedly modeled after the town hall in Basel, this four-story lodging house—still extant on this lovely Upper West Side block—is a “Beaux-Arts interpretation of the Northern European Renaissance,” states the AIA Guide to New York City.

It may be a blend of styles, but the exterior of the home is quite delightful, with arched, cathedral-like windows and a gabled roof.

Befitting a home designated for Swiss immigrants, the underside of the cornice features shields representing different regions of Switzerland.

Note the boot scrapers flanking the first-floor entrance, each decorated with an S and an H.

Based on the opening day ceremony, which included singing societies and dedications in German, French, and English, the Swiss Benevolent Society was quite proud of the building.

It could accommodate 80 residents and featured sitting rooms, a reading room (above), a smoking room, a kitchen, a dining hall, 29 bedrooms (below, separated by sex), and interestingly, a fumigator.

The Swiss Home fulfilled its mission, but empty rooms were often available. In 1912, the home took in 14 survivors of the Titanic from various nationalities.

At some point, it was converted into a residence for women, referred to in this 1982 New York Times article as “Swiss Town House.” Today, it’s owned by CUNY and is home base for Macaulay Honors College.

[Second, fourth, and fifth photos: Swiss Home Dedication Program; Third Photo: NYPL 1913]

The ghost signs behind an ex-Bowery flophouse

August 6, 2018

Walking on the Bowery near Rivington Street the other day, the signage caught my eye.

Painted on glass panels were vintage-looking ads for restaurant fixtures—including the very old-school “bar benches” and “coffee urns.” (Does anyone use the term coffee urn anymore? Somehow I imagine it’s too morbid for Starbucks.)

The signs are on the ground floor windows of 219-221 Bowery, two unusual and conjoined late 19th century buildings with five floors of decorative panels, bays, and pilasters.

Clearly they were painted by a no-longer-operating restaurant supply company.

Numbers 219-221 are within the boundaries of the Bowery’s restaurant supply row, which sprang up in the middle of the 20th century, reports a 2004 New York Times article.

But numbers 219-221 are also located along the Bowery’s skid row, which became infamous in the 20th century, when Bowery was most often paired with the word bum.

These twin buildings with the mysterious kitchen-supply signs once housed a notorious Bowery flophouse called the Alabama House.

(It’s very faint, but you can just make out the name in a faded ad on the side of the building in the photo above.)

The Renaissance Revival/Queen Anne structure was built in 1889 and designed by James Ware, the architect who also invented New York’s signature dumbbell tenements.

When the Alabama was built, the Bowery had already become a dive district with a shadowy elevated train (at left, looking up Grand Street) and cheap bars, dance halls, and theaters lining Chatham Square to Cooper Square.

The Alabama joined a long list of lodging houses where for a dime (or less) a night, poor men could lay their heads (at right, another Bowery flophouse) through much of the 20th century.

By 1960, the fee for a room was still a relatively low 80 cents a night.

But the “gentle men, the sherry drinkers, the slightly unbalanced,” as a New York Times article described the denizens of the street at the time, would be shuffled elsewhere after 1967.

That year, it was announced that the Alabama Hotel, as it was now called, would be converted into artists’ lofts. “Bowery Hotel Where Derelicts Slept Being Converted to Artist Studios,” the Times headline read.

Now, more than 50 years later, the men who slept there are phantoms, just like the faded restaurant-supply signs.

[Fifth photo: MCNY, 1908 X2010.7.1.4022; Sixth photo: Jacob Riis, 1895, MCNY 90.13.3.63; Seventh photo: New York Times 1967]