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.