Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lord and Taylor

Lord and Taylor's 3rd building, from 1872-1914, on 20th and Broadway.

Lord and Taylor's 4th and current building on 5th Avenue and 39th Street.
This past week I started working at Lord and Taylor ... they need holiday-season sales associates and I, for a change of pace, was hired on the spot. I guess to say that they "need" people is an understatement. I actually got training these past couple of days from a very outgoing sales manager, obviously the kind of personality-type the folks at Lord and Taylor are looking for ... they certainly emphasized that enough, and I hope I'm up to snuff. The key, I think, is to just come across as knowledgeable and approachable. Lord and Taylor has a long history, though, that they seem to be very proud of ... which is a stark contrast from most businesses that only want to concentrate on what's hip and contemporary.

Lord and Taylor was the first department store in the United States, founded in 1826 on Catherine Street and Broadway, and then moving to Grand Street in Broadway by 1861. In 1863, the sales associates were actually given guns to protect themselves and the store during the draft riots -- kind of different from today's standards.

In 1872, the store moved for a third time to a beautiful, Gothic-style, haunted-house-looking building on the corner of Broadway and 20th Street. Broadway in the 1890s was said to have a "champagne sparkle", and was the center of high-society shopping and nightlife. I've walked past this building so many times when I used to work down here. I always knew the Chelsea area maintained a lot of its old buildings, much more so than uptown, but unfortunately it wasn't until after I got laid-off that I knew the back stories to pretty much any of them.

Lord and Taylor, being on Broadway between Union and Madison Squares, was obviously a store for the rich, the "carriage trade", who didn't want to associate with the working class who rode the elevated train along Sixth Avenue and shopped at such bargain stores as Siegal-Cooper and the Hugh O'Neill building. This store on Broadway was state-of-the-art, as ten thousand people visited simply to ride the brand new elevator over the the first three days of business.

However, the city's center continued to migrate uptown, and Fifth Avenue gradually became what it now has been for decades, one of the world's best known shopping districts. In 1914, Lord and Taylor's fourth and current 11 -story flagship store opened up on the corner of 5th Avenue and 39th Street. And each morning, the sales associates gather on the second floor, play the national anthem (a tradition that started in the '70s in solidarity for the hostages in Iran) and have the rally, committing to sell, sell, sell!

As the store sets up its famous Holiday window displays, and people from all around the world come to shop with us, I plan to get in the spirit as best I can so I can make at least a little money this Christmas, and maybe they'll even keep me on. In the mean time, I'll try to wow 'em with my vast knowledge of the rich history of this store.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Open House New York

The Irish American Historical Society on 80th and 5th.
The Ukrainian Institute of America on 79th and 5th.
The Xavier Chapel.
This past weekend was open house New York, and I felt fortunate that I happened to read something about it on Wikipedia just in time to check it out this year. Historic buildings all over the city were offering free tours, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity for an amateur historian like me. Of course, the most famous places, like Ground Zero and Grand Central Station, were booked way in advance, but there were still some good ones.

So I took a walk uptown a-ways to some of the old mansions along 5th Avenue, and came across the Irish American Historical Society on 80th Street, that's been in its current home, an old Beaux-Arts building, since 1940. The public rarely gets to see the inside of these old buildings, so it was a fun experience to be able to walk around one of them. After I signed in, I took a ride up the old elevator, the type you might find in a Prohibition-era movie. Only the second floor was open to the public, which is still more floors than most. The display currently there was modern art from Irish artists, all-in-all it was a big contrast from the old furniture and paintings that were on the walls. Looking out the large windows on 5th Avenue I could only imagine what it would be like to live in a place like this.

The mansion on 79th and 5th, which now serves as the Ukrainian Institute of America, is even bigger. Built for banker and railroad investor Isaac Fletcher in 1898, it was bought in 1920 by oil Tycoon Harry F. Sinclair, and then in 1930 by the last direct descendants of Peter Stuyvesant until 1952 -- a brother and sister who lived there alone with ten servants. (Five each, I guess.) All of the main rooms were massive, with a small kitchen off to the side which seems to have not changed much since the early twentieth century. I even got to show off my tourist-guide skills a little when I offered the corner where St.-Mark's-in-the-Bowery Church is, where all the Stuyvesants, including the last private owners of this house, are now buried.

The following day I went down to the Church of St. Francis Xavier, otherwise known as the Xavier Chapel, on West 16th Street near 6th Avenue, the chapel of Xavier High School next door, where my father, his brothers, and his father all went. It really was a beautiful church, and the tour guide pointed out a number of architectural points that otherwise would have been completely overlooked by the common observer. My favorite part was when we got to go upstairs to the choir loft, which is under some major construction. What were formally smaller private altars for the Jesuit priests on either side of the chapel on the upper level are now being reconstructed into something else, but not even they know what yet.

Open House New York is a great opportunity for a guy like me to learn more about some of the city's most important landmarks. Next year, I'll be on the lookout for it, so I can better prepare for what I want to go see. As for now, I'm glad I was able to find out about it in the nick of time, so I could go check out a few gems.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Greenwich Village

The Jefferson Market Library, 10th Street, 6th and Greenwich Avenues.
The Empire State Building, 34th and 5th.
The Chrysler Building, 42nd and Park.
The main entrance of the "News" Building.
The Daily News Building, 42nd between 2nd and 3rd.
This past weekend I decided to take a walk down to Greenwich Village, taking a few shots of the skyscrapers up town along the way for the Facebook page. While downtown, I tried to take in some of the old buildings that remain down there after trying to get some good shots of the art deco buildings of the '30s. High rises such as the the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and Daily News Building, where my grandfather, father, mother and brother have all worked in one form or another, I'm guessing were supposed to represent New Yorkers vision of the future, with a sleek, plain looking design that was a big contrast to the ornate Victorian style of some of the late nineteenth century buildings, that are now common downtown, a prime example being the Jefferson Market Courthouse (now a branch of the New York Public Library), that still prominently stands in the middle of Greenwich Village. Built from 1874 - 1877, in the 1880s a panel of architects voted it the fourth most beautiful building in the United States. Abandoned by the court system in 1945, it was slated for destruction by the 1960s, but public outcry saved it, and authors like E.E. Cummings, who lived in Patchin Place across the street, persuaded the city to turn it into a library. Meanwhile, the Women's House of Detention, a 1932 Art Deco building that replaced an older jail, and was reportedly the only art deco - style prison in the world, was closed down and demolished in 1973. The prison is featured prominently in David Duchovny's 2005 movie House of D, about his childhood in Greenwich Village in the early '70s, where he befriends one of the prisoners. The prison supposedly was of close enough proximity to the street that prisoners would often heckle passers-by along Sixth Avenue. I never saw that movie but I feel like I should, even though it got terrible reviews, mainly from critics who said it lacked depth and direction.

A couple blocks down is St. Joseph's Church, on West Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. St. Peter's Church, on the corner of Barclay an Church Streets downtown, is the oldest Catholic Church in New York State, dating back to 1785, but a fire destroyed the original building, and the one standing there now dates back to 1840. St. Joseph's is the oldest Catholic Church building in the city, dating back to 1808, and the Dominican Friars there now run the NYU Catholic Campus Ministry there. I went in their and sat down for a while. The last time I was there, I was browsing through the bulletins in flyers by the door when a woman I'd say in about her sixties who was sitting at one of the chairs by the door came up to me.

"Excuse me," she asked, "are you wearing your pants below your waist."

"No, they're at my waist."

"Oh, good. I was just making sure, because wearing them below your waist is an abomination."

Once she had confirmed that I wasn't one of those rowdy teens who wore his jeans below his waist, she had me cornered to start talking to me.

I always try to be polite. I don't like brushing people off, so I sit with her for a while, and she talks about how she didn't like the changes in the Catholic Church since Vatican 2, and she thinks the mass that's going on inside now is not a Catholic service at all. I let her talk to me for a while, and tried to engage her in conversation. But when I was sitting there, I was reminded of something about people who like to talk a lot, no matter who they are: they don't care about whether you are blowing them off or truly trying to engage them in conversation, all they want to do is hear themselves talk. As I watched a glazed over look slowly form over her face as I finished my measly sentence, I decided to just let her say what she wanted to say about the terrible state of the Catholic Church and the world in general. On that note, as she went up to get communion, despite her distaste of the Vatican 2 mass, I beat it out of there.

The relationship this city has with architecture is very interesting to me, though. In the '30s, city developers like Robert Moses, who seemed to have some kind of unrealistic vision of the future, seemed to have no appreciation for the artistic skill that went into the old buildings and monuments in this city, and were content to have them bulldozed to the ground for something that was considered more modern. That old prison, which replaced an even older one, was a great example of old Victorian and new Art Deco side by side. I wish I could have seen it for myself, but at least that tower at the Jefferson Market thankfully isn't going anywhere.