A dangerous way to sleep during a city heat wave

July 7, 2016

If you’ve ever lived in a tenement apartment, then you know nothing traps heat like those narrow, airless spaces.

To avoid roasting during a heat wave, tenement dwellers (two-thirds of the city lived in them in 1900, incredibly) sometimes took desperate measures, like sleeping on the roof or bedding down on the beach at Coney Island, on a pier, or in Central Park.

Fireescapesleepbettmancorbis

And of course, you could always lay out a blanket and pillow on the fire escape. None were especially safe options, but for poor people in a pre–air conditioned New York, you took your chances.

[Undated photo: Bettman/Corbis]

1930s New York made Sunday brunch very trendy

July 7, 2016

Okay, so New Yorkers didn’t invent the concept of brunch. That honor goes to an English writer in 1895, who argued that this combo meal would encourage good cheer and ease Sunday hangovers.

Brunchlombardyhotelnypost

But when brunch crossed the Atlantic in the middle of the Depression, city residents with money to spare quickly popularized the meal as a festive way to cap off the weekend.

LombardyhotelMCNY“Brunch did not become a New York City culinary experience until the early 1930s, when chef Werner Haechler offered it in the dining room at the Hotel Lombardy, on East 56th Street in Manhattan,” explains Andrew F. Smith in Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City.

Also referred to as the bracer breakfast, the tally-ho lunch, or the hunt lunch, brunch at the Lombardy (see photo above and at left) consisted of a buffet from noon until 4 p.m. and cost $1.25.

What was on the menu at New York’s original brunch haunt? Sauteed veal and kidneys, according to this 1939 New York Times article (headline below) on the new brunch phenomenon.

Brunchnytheadline1939Other restaurants soon began whipping up their own brunch, serving buckwheat cakes with sausages and scrambled eggs with bacon, reported the Times.

Fried fillet of flounder, codfish cakes, chicken hash in cream, and Boston baked beans also made their way onto various menus.

As for the alcohol, New York’s liquor laws meant that brunch-goers who wanted to drink had to arrive after 1 p.m. A whiskey sour was a popular starter, along with a “‘velvet,’ a concoction of port and champagne” stated the Times.

Brunchmarksplace1982

Sunday (and soon Saturday) brunch became even more popular in the postwar years, when incomes rose and church attendance fell.

Menus changed; bloody marys and mimosas became brunch staples in the 1950s. Brunch is arguably more popular than ever—but one thing has changed, besides the price.

Yaffabrunch 1

The Lombardy Hotel, still going strong after close to a century in business, no longer serves it. Countless other restaurants do, of course, like the late, great Yaffa Cafe and a place called Mark’s, as seen in these early-1980s ads.

[Top image: Lombardy Hotel via the New York Post; second image: Lombardy Hotel in 1940s, MCNY; third image: New York Times headline 1939; fourth image: Soho News, March 1982; fifth image: East Village Eye June 1984]

Four ghost store signs in the Village and Brooklyn

July 7, 2016

In a city that changes as rapidly as Gotham, ghost signs abound. You know these phantom signs, left behind by a building’s previous tenant and never replaced by the new one—if there even is a new tenant.

Ghostsignmarinerepair

That seems to be the case with this wonderfully preserved Meier & Oelhaf Marine Repair sign on Christopher and Weehawken Streets. The company occupied 177 Christopher from 1920 to 1984.

It’s been an empty and eerie presence for 30 years, a clue to Christopher Street’s maritime past. Maybe it won’t be unoccupied for long; a different sign says the ground floor is for rent.

Ghostsigncoffeeweststreet

Around the corner on a lonely stretch of West Street, this coffee sign remains high above two empty, rundown storefronts—one of which was presumably a lively coffee shop not long ago.

Ghostsignsschoolsupplies

A store solely devoted to school supplies? The old-school signage can be seen behind the new awning for the Pure Perfection Beauty Salon on Utica Avenue in Crown Heights.

You don’t come across these too often anymore, a store name spelled out in tile amid a geometric design at the entrance. But it’s a charming old-timey New York thing.

Ghostsignshecht's

The people who ran Hecht’s, once at 363 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, must have agreed. The antique store there now, Sterling Place, luckily didn’t do away with it.

Overlooking the sea at a Gilded Age beach resort

July 4, 2016

When wealthy New Yorkers in the Gilded Age sought to escape the “heated term,” as summer was called, they certainly didn’t board a ferry to Coney Island with the masses.

Longbranchhomer

The “watering place” many of the new rich fled to was Long Branch, New Jersey, where enormous hotels and cottages (aka, mansions) housed the new rich, as well as actors, artists, and seven U.S. presidents.

In 1869, Winslow Homer, who sketched scenes there for leading magazines early in his career, captured one summer moment in “Long Branch, New Jersey,” the name of the lovely painting above.

LongbranchhomersketchIn both the painting and the sketch at left, a white flag has been raised, indicating that the bathing hour for proper ladies had begun.

In the painting, two well-dressed women shield themselves from the sun in a sky so blue, it could be the Mediterranean. Long Branch was actually known as the American Boulogne, after a seaside town in northern France.

Sick of Prohibition, New York holds a beer parade

July 4, 2016

Beerparademarchersio(By 1932, alcohol-loving New Yorkers had had enough.

For 12 years, Prohibition had been the law of the land, a law enforced in the city by a team of sometimes crooked prohibition cops and ignored by people who openly drank at the city’s legendary speakeasies.

So New York’s mayor, party guy and frequent speakeasy visitor James J. Walker, proposed an idea.

Beerparadefreerepublic

He wanted to stage an enormous protest parade, with participation on the part of labor activists, government officials, and regular citizens, up Fifth Avenue.

It wouldn’t be the first “wet parade” in the city. Anti-Prohibition marches were held in the 1920s as well, attracting many drys, as they were known, as well.

Beerparade1932souvenirBut what was dubbed the “We Want Beer” parade of 1932 had more support than ever.

The argument was strong: legalizing beer and other beverages would add millions in tax money to government coffers and also open up an industry that would employ thousands in Depression-era America.

On May 14, at least 100,000 marchers strode down Fifth Avenue from 80th Street, with picket signs, in costume, and cars festooned with slogans.

The marchers went west on 59th Street and back north on Central Park West, parading into the night.

BeerparadebrooklyneagleheadlineMayor Walker, dapper in his derby and suit (and about to be brought up on corruption charges before resigning as mayor), led the procession.

Other cities and towns held beer parades as well, and Coney Island had its own on Surf Avenue a month later.

(Interestingly, at noon, the marchers paused for a minute of silence in honor of Charles Lindbergh Jr., whose body was found dead in woods in New Jersey two days earlier.)

How effective was the beer parade? Hard to say. It  generated big media coverage (check out this old newsreel) and may have helped put the final nail in the coffin for Prohibition, dead and gone 19 months later.

Beerparadenydnews

[Top image: via Free Republic; second image: via i09; third image: MCNY; fourth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle headline; fifth image: New York Daily News]

Random sightings of old phone exchange signs

July 4, 2016

The traditional two-letter phone number prefix was officially abandoned in the 1960s.

From time to time, as readers of this site know, they sometimes reveal themselves in faded ads and randomly found signs, like these two below.

Oldphoneexchangeasbestoscurtain

I’m not exactly sure what an asbestos curtain was, but American Stage Equipment sold them from an East Harlem office South Bronx office.

The CY exchange is new to me, but according to this guide, it stands for cypress, which places it in the Bronx. The sign hangs in an antiques shop in Brooklyn.

Oldphoneexchangeelevatoralarm

ST could have stood for stagg or sterling in Brooklyn, stillwell in Queens, or Stuyvesant in Manhattan. It was found on a Flatiron building, so Stuyvesant is a good bet.

Wining, dining, and celebrating at Little Hungary

June 30, 2016

On a stretch of East Houston Street nicknamed “Goulash Row” for its Hungarian restaurants was a place called Little Hungary, an improbable haunt of the city’s elite and tourists in the pre-Prohibition city.

Littlehungryacozynookatlittlehungrymcny1910

Little Hungary featured “the atmosphere of Budapest, of gay nights on the Danube, of the Rhapsodies of Liszt” as well as goulash handed out as part of a free lunch with an order of glass of beer, wrote the New York Times.

Little Hungary hosted a wild and festive dinner for Teddy Roosevelt in 1905, after he won the presidency a year earlier. The Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, however, put an end to the place.

[Postcard: 1910, MCNY]

The lost Gimbels sign in a Midtown train station

June 30, 2016

Gimbelscloseup2016It’s not easy to see against the grimy tile wall.

Yet as you exit the PATH station beneath 33rd Street, you can just make out the letters G, L, and S.

It’s one of the last reminders of the Gimbels store, which for 76 years occupied its Herald Square spot on Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street.

Gimbels, of course, was a retail giant during the city’s 20th century department store era.

Gimbels1920mcny

A little more downmarket than Macy’s across the street, the two behemoths had a fabled rivalry for decades until Gimbels gave up the ghost in 1986.

A major selling point for Gimbels were the underground passageways that took 34th Street subway and PATH riders right to the store’s entrances.

Gimbelssign2016

Gimbels is long gone, but the building, extensively revamped, is still there—it’s now the Manhattan Mall with a JC Penney as its flagship store.

Gimbels1905-1914mcnyA few other remnants of Gimbels continue to haunt Midtown. A faded Gimbels ad on a building on West 31st Street should still be there.

And though it has no Gimbels signage, this enchanting copper skybridge linking an upper floor of the Gimbels store to an annex over 32nd Street is a lovely site.

Hat tip to the eagle-eyed History Author Show!

[Images: MCNY]

The 1904 horse auction house in the East Village

June 30, 2016

Lets say you’re a Vanderbilt, a Belmont, or a Delano, or a member of one of New York’s other super rich families at the turn of the century.

13thstreethorses2

You have your mansion on upper Fifth Avenue, and for fancy dinners, only Delmonico’s will do. But when it come to transportation, polo, and racing, where do you get your horses and carriages?

The Van Tassell and Kearney Horse Auction Mart was one option.

13thstreethorsesmcny1910Formed as a general auction house in the 1870s, the company began specializing in show horses and fine carriages for the city’s elite, operating several equine auction buildings along East 13th Street.

With the era of the horse still in swing in 1903, Van Tassell and Kearney commissioned a new showroom and auction building at 126-128 East 13th Street.

After knocking down three row houses, the architects were tasked with creating a lovely structure roomy enough to show and stable horses but so elegant that it attracted the city’s wealthiest clientele.

The new building, completed in 1904, was an unusual beauty. “The central arched window is set within a wide coved band that widens and becomes more three-dimensional near the top,” wrote the Landmarks Preservation Commission in its 2012 report deeming it a city landmark.

13thstreethorses

“Crowned by a prominent cartouche and keystone, this feature may have been influenced by the dramatic forms associated with the Art Nouveau style, or perhaps, the padded oval collars worn by horses.”

13thstreethorsesadThe horse auctions were short-lived. The building hosted its last one in 1916, a victim of the automobile age. The Vanderbilts and their brethren were now racing cars, not equines.

In subsequent years it housed a candy factory, a vocational school, and from 1978 to 2005 the studio of painter and sculptor Frank Stella, who cleaned and restored the facade.

Today it’s a dance center, I believe, and one of the last remaining buildings in New York intended for staging horse auctions, a necessity when horses powered the city.

[Second image: MCNY, 1910; fourth image: The Rider and Driver, 1893]

An early city bus motors down Fifth Avenue

June 27, 2016

It doesn’t look very sturdy or comfortable. And an awful lot of people seem packed into that upper deck.

But if you needed to travel along Fifth Avenue between Washington Square and 59th Street in the early 1900s, this was your mode of transportation.

Double Decker2

New York was the first city to use “motor omnibuses” for public transit, and the earliest fleet hit the streets in 1902, according to The Wheels That Drove New York. In 1905, the Fifth Avenue Coach Company invested in 15 French DeDion Bouton double deckers, like the one in the postcard.

Motor buses for commuters were a hit, and even sightseeing buses popped up, the precursors to today’s big red tourist haulers. Within a few years, Fifth Avenue’s horse-drawn omnibuses were history.


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