Friday, December 23, 2011

The Macy's Santa Claus

The Macy's Santa Claus.
Rowland Hussey Macy
The new Macy's store in 1907.
Macy's today.
The Siegel-Cooper Big Store today.
The Big Store when it opened in 1896.
The Big Store closed in 1917, and was used as a hospital during World War I.
1947's "Miracle on 34th Street".
Henry Siegel, eager to snatch up Macy's old land, built his new store here on 14th & 6th when Macy's moved uptown.  It's now an Urban Outfitters.
In celebration of the holiday season, and since I got onto the subject of Macy's in my last blog, I thought I'd write a little bit about the department store Santa Claus, which was introduced by Rowland Hussey Macy in 1870 in his first New York City store on 14th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues.  The tradition became world-famous after 1947's "Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street".  During the latter part of the 19th Century, a number of ambitious entrepreneurs competed for the coveted reputation of the city's most popular store.  At the turn of the 20th Century, business partners Henry Siegel and Frank Cooper brought their dry goods business to New York City where they built what was then the largest store in the world.

Macy however saw that the center of the city was migrating uptown, and he purchased land on 34th Street from the recently closed Koster & Bial Music Hall to build the Macy's Department Store we know today.  Taking up most of the block, it has an odd shape, leaving a little space on the southwest corner.  Last I checked, it now has a sunglasses hut, but in 1903 was snatched up by Henry Siegel to persuade Macy to sell him the department store's old land on 14th Street.  But it proved to not be a good move.  Siegel didn't know what Macy did -- that the center of New York City shopping was heading uptown, as was the center of the city in general.  Siegel, however, decided to move a few blocks south, and his new store on the corner of 14th and 6th went bankrupt in 1914.  It's now an Urban Outfitters.  The ornate "Big Store", once the toast of the town, went out of business in 1917, and served as an army hospital during World War I.  For a few decades it served as factory space, and in the '80s a youth center called "The Door" was based there.  The '90s however saw it's return to retail, and the building now houses a Bed, Bath & Beyond, TJ Max and Marshal's.

In the spirit of competition, the two stores introduced a number of novelties to the retail trade, such as free samples, demonstrations, money-back guarantees, and window displays.  Since 1924, when the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was started by Macy's employees, Santa has sat at the end of the parade, chiming in the Christmas season.  Macy's employees, many of them first-generation European immigrants, wished to celebrate the beginning of the holiday season with a procession similar to one's they had back in the old country.  Now every Christmas, millions of New Yorkers take their children to sit on Santa's lap and tell him what they want for Christmas.  For the child, it's sometimes fun, sometimes terrifying, but always a Christmas childhood tradition.  Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Corner

The Corner circa 1998.
The Corner being renovated as The Corner Cafe in October 2009.
The Corner Cafe in May 2011.
A closeup of the cornice in 1986.
The plaques on the side of the building.
The building in the '30s, with the 6th Avenue elevated train being taken down.
The Corner's interior in 1892.
The Corner in 1892.
The plaque commemorating Edison's presentation of the motion picture by the front door of Macy's.
The front door of Macy's on 34th Street.
A side door that once led to the theatre is long cemented over.

The interior of the theater on 23rd Street in the 1890s.
Another view of the long-sealed side door on 24th Street.
Whenever I'm walking down lower 6th Avenue, I always stop to take a look at a building on the corner of 24th Street with a colorful history.  Koster & Bial's "The Corner" was built in 1887 as a beer hall annex to the concert hall a block south.  The building is mostly unnoticed by passers-by today, but the upper levels have just recently received some renovations and cleaning, revealing it's original bright-orange brick color. 

Bryant's Opera House, built in 1870 next to the French Catholic Church of St. Vincent de Paul (where singer Edith Piaff married in the the 1960s), was one of the most popular nightlife spots on 23rd Street, which was the theatre district at that time, and featured the highly elaborate Bryant's Minstrels, who were known mostly for introducing New York City to many Stephen Foster songs such as "Dixie".  The concert venue was put up for sale in 1878 and bought by German-born business partners Albert Bial and John Koster, who previously ran a German-style beer garden and concert hall next store.  From the beginning, Koster and Bial were interested in the alcohol-distributing business, and side-stepped a law prohibiting its sale in theaters by replacing the curtain in front of the stage with a folding screen, thus making the place a restaurant that offered entertainment rather than a theatre that served alcohol.  Their business grew in popularity, and they hired German architects Herman J. Schwarzman and Albert Buchman to build a beer hall annex to the theatre a block north, which opened on January 25, 1887.  The four-story building with brownstone and terra cotta trim was dubbed "The Corner" and ornamented with a cornice on top and plaques with whimsical late-Victorian lettering that doubled as street signs.  They began running into trouble, though, when police busted a prostitution ring in the "cork room", an after-hours lounge that connected the theater to The Corner and only served champaign. 

The theater was forced to close in 1893, but by teaming up with Oscar Hammerstein that same year, their new music hall was opened on 34th Street and Broadway, in a more fashionable area.  The prominent duo's successful formula of variety acts and alcoholic beverages was once again a hit uptown, and in April of 1896 Thomas Edison introduced the United States to the motion picture in the new theater with the unveiling of his Vitascope.

However, Koster & Bial's Music Hall closed in 1902, and as the city's shopping district migrated uptown, Macy's latest building went up, and remains to this day the largest store in the world.  However, a plaque commemorating Edison's demonstration in 1896 can be seen by the door.  The old theatre on 23rd Street was demolished in 1924 and a Chase Bank now stands in its place, but the beer hall annex on 24th Street has quietly remained, with a number of businesses moving in and out, the most famous of these being Billy's Topless from 1970-2001.  It's featured in the 1998 movie "Rounders", where Ed Norton gets beat up by a former business partner (after Matt Damon gets into a fight with his girlfriend outside of McSorley's).  I added a link below.  Historians nostalgic for old New York remember the place as being a Chelsea fixture that never had any complaints from neighbors, didn't have a cover charge, and catered to regular girls who might not get hired in the city's more upscale clubs.  But Mayor Giuliani called the city's adult entertainment market a "corrosive institution", and worked hard to shut down these places, mainly in Times Square, but also holdovers in other parts of the city like this one.  A law was passed stating that an adult establishment could not be within 500 feet of an apartment building, school, or house of worship.

Now it houses The Corner Cafe, a bagel and pizza shop that pays tribute to the building's original name.  Next time you're in the Chelsea area, stop and check out this quaint old building with a very rich history.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Former Maxwell's Plum

The newly opened Falk Surgical Supplies.
Falk Surgical on 64th and 1st.
The flamboyant interior of Maxwell's Plum in its heyday.
TGI Friday's circa 1970.
Baker Street today.
A close-up of the new sign.
Recently a store called Falk Surgical Supplies opened up on the southwest corner of 64th and 1st in a building that was sitting empty for what seemed like a couple of years.  From 1966-88, that building was Maxwell's Plum, a flashily decorated bar and restaurant which followed T.G.I. Friday's one block south, opened the previous year, as the first-ever singles bars, where young, single twenty-somethings can meet and mingle.  Before these places opened up, bars were strickly old-man hangouts.  Places like P.J. Clarke's and McSorley's were not for schmoozing.  Opening up a place for young people to socialize was a new concept in the '60s, which is hard to believe because now there's a singles bar on practically every block in the city.

Mervin LeRoy, the owner of Maxwell's, also opened up the world-famous Tavern on the Green in Central Park, which closed just recently, and TGI Friday's founder Alan Stillman later opened Smith & Wolenski's Steakhouse on 49th and 3rd.  Stillman didn't know anyone named Smith or Wolenski, instead he got the names out of a phonebook.  LeRoy faired well in the city for decades, boasting such regulars as Cary Grant, Barbara Streisand and Warren Beatty, but didn't have much luck in other cities.  A second Maxwell's Plum opened in San Francisco in 1981 at a cost of $7 million but soon closed.  His Potomac Restaurant in Washington, DC, the largest in the city's history, opened at a cost of $9 million but closed shortly thereafter.  As much as LeRoy tried, he was never able to duplicate the popularity and glamour that his bar/restaurant on 64th and 1st enjoyed throughout the '60s and '70s.  The restaurant's ultimate demise came in the '80s, when its food-to-value ratio deteriorated.  An average dinner, once around $10 had shot up to around $40-$50.  As newer fashionable singles' spots were shooting up all over the city, snatching up many of LeRoy's customers, the restaurant struggled to regain its food image.  In the process the menu veered all over, from continental, French, Californian, and American, to a confusing blend of all of these.   The iconic bar/restaurant, once a niche in and of itself, was long past its prime in July 1988 and abruptly closed.

TGI Friday's, on the other hand, moved out to bigger, better quarters in 1989, and now has locations all over the world (although it is known as a family-themed restaurant now rather than a singles bar).  The original Friday's on the corner of 63rd and 1st is now another pub/restaurant called Baker Street, which still boasts itself as the place where Tom Cruise trained to become a bartender in the 1988 movie Cocktail.  Baker Street has maintained much of the basic layout of the original Friday's and some of the Tiffany windows are still on display.  The Maxwell's Plum building, however, is now completely unrecognizable as Falk Surgical Supplies.  Left behind are the ghosts of a block on the Upper East Side that introduced the singles' scene to New York City.  Since the days of 63rd to 64th Streets on 1st Avenue in the 1960s, the entire city has taken a novel idea and run with it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Open House New York 2011

St. Paul's Chapel circa 1905 (the pews have since been removed).
The hotel in 1932 (note the massive gas tank in the back).
The pulpit of St. Paul's Chapel.
The gazebo in the back of the Mount Vernon Hotel.
The front yard of the Mount Vernon Hotel.
The back of the hotel.
Another shot of the back garden of the Mount Vernon Hotel.
A bench and gazebo in the back garden of the hotel.
Another sitting area in the back of the hotel.
The 1909 Queensboro Bridge towers over the front yard of the hotel.
The sign out front of the hotel.
The front of the hotel.
A small bridge leading from the second floor to a neighboring garden next to the hotel.
A fireman's coat from 9/11 on display in St. Paul's Chapel.
An 1785 painting of the Governor's seal above his box in the chapel.
Chairs in the Governor's box in the chapel.
Looking up the main isle of the chapel.
One of the first paintings of the Presidential seal, hanging over his box in the chapel.
President Washington's chair in the chapel.
A painting of St. Paul's in 1799.
The Mount Vernon Hotel today.
One of the sitting rooms in the hotel.
The hotel in 1924, its last year as Con Ed's headquarters (note the large gas tank in back).
An aerial view of the hotel from the '40s.
The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden.
St. Paul's Chapel circa 1895.
St. Paul's graveyard in the early '70s with the Twin Towers being built across the street.
This past weekend was Open House New York in the big city, the annual event where buildings of note open up their doors to the public free of charge.  This year, I took a look around the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden, at 421 East 61st Street between 1st and York Avenues.  Built in 1799, it was originally a carriage house for the summer mansion of Col. William Stephens Smith and his wife Abigail Adams Smith, the daughter of our second President John Adams.  The mansion was located where the Bed, Bath & Beyond is now on 1st Avenue between 60th and 61st.  The mansion burned to the ground before the couple even got to use it once, and in 1826 the abandoned carriage house was converted into the Mount Vernon Hotel, a "day hotel" for the well-to-do who wanted to get away from the city, which back then ended at 14th Street.  The museum guide explained that a "day hotel" in those days was about equivalent to a modern-day country club.  The rich would travel up there during the day for recreation, but not sleep there.  The house actually only had one small bedroom.  The hotel was named for the home of George Washington in Virginia.  The first President remained a popular cult figure decades after his death, and it was very common to see his portrait in hotels, taverns, and other public places.

If you get a chance to visit, I highly recommend it.  Walking up the stone steps and on the the wrap-around lawn to the front door is like suddenly walking into the country, I found it to be a very strange feeling.  The front entrance brought me to the dining room, where a dinner scene from around the 1820s could be found.  Turtle soup is being served, with the shell being re-used as main bowl.  The door to the left leads to the kitchen, and to the right is a living room with reproductions of old newspapers that listed the wages for different jobs.  Unskilled laborers made about $2.50 a month.  In total there are eight rooms decorated in an 1820s-style with furniture donated throughout the years.  Unfortunately, no one is allowed to take pictures inside, so you'll have to see it for yourself!

On a very interesting note, I learned that after being a private home for a number of years in the late 1800s, the house was bought by the Standard Gas Light Company (today's Con Edison) in 1905 when the area was becoming more industrialized.  It remained Con Ed's main headquarters until 1924 when it was purchased by the Colonial Dames of America and turned into a museum by 1939.  I saw a number of pictures from the '20s and '30s of the house surrounded by massive gas tanks.  Out of gratitude for Con Ed almost completely keeping the house unchanged, all its employees are given free admission to this day.

Since I was on a colonial "high" if you will, I decided to go down to St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway and Fulton Street, one of the oldest buildings in Manhattan, where Washington led a procession to a thanksgiving service here from the old Federal Hall on his inauguration day.  The chapel still has a lot of displays devoted to 9/11 and the rescue efforts it took part in.  The governor's box on the south side, a sign notes, was used for supplies, while the President's box, directly across, was used as a podiatrist's station.  Since many of Washington's men went without proper footwear during the Revolution, the chapel considered it a touching tribute.  Above it is one of the oldest paintings of the presidential seal, dating back to 1785, which was probably hanging there during Washington's presidency.  Noting that the bird is solid black, a sign read that Benjamin Franklin probably had a lot of influence on the seal's design since he was a leading advocate for making the wild turkey, rather than the bald eagle, the national animal.

When I had come down that afternoon, choir practice was in full swing, so I decided I shouldn't bother them.  I took a look around the old graveyard and then headed back uptown.  For anyone living in the city, I highly recommend taking advantage of Open House New York each October as an opportunity to learn about some of its most fascinating buildings free of charge.