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THE LAST SURVIVING HISTORIC PIER IN NEW YORK CITY, Pier A at Battery Park in lower Manhattan was ripe for adaptive re-use. Built in the 1880s, with a clock tower added in 1919 as a World War I memorial, it was used by the city as a fireboat station, then abandoned in 1992. Whereupon it sat vacant for more than two decades, and — though landmarked and on the National Register of Historic Places — fell into disrepair.
Happily, after a long renovation, it’s been reborn as a 28,000-square-foot oyster bar and beer hall, Pier A Harbor House, owned by Peter Poulakakos, who owns 10 other restaurants in downtown Manhattan, including three on Stone Street.
With a gazillion-dollar view of the Harbor, including Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, perfectly poised to catch the sunsets over New York Harbor, Pier A is an obvious place to bring out-of-town visitors. But it’s also a great spot for locals, with beautifully executed interiors, as my sister and I found out last Sunday. It was fairly quiet on a foggy winter’s day, a month after opening, but seats thousands, including 400 outside, and I can picture next summer’s mob scene. Only the lower level is open at present; the upper level will be a fine-dining restaurant and special-events space.
As I looked around Battery Park and into the Financial District, below, I was heartened to realize the area has actually retained a fair number of old limestone and brick office buildings. It’s not all glass towers yet (or perhaps they were lost in the fog). It seemed like it would be recognizable as lower Manhattan to someone disembarking from a ship here in 1945.
We walked up toward Fulton Street to see Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s $4-billion new PATH and subway station at the World Trade Center site. The comb-like roof structure, below, doesn’t look as graceful as the renderings the architect presented a decade ago.
Inside, an impressive oculus, below, will illuminate an indoor shopping mall.
I find myself more excited by the spiffing up of a 19th historic pier than by the madly un-contextual 21st century design of the train station, but I’ll reserve judgement. Over-budget and behind schedule, it’s still incomplete.
TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT THESE BUILDINGS next time you’re in the area around Grand Central Terminal, because some of them may not be there much longer. Big changes are coming to what’s called the Vanderbilt Corridor, the five-block stretch to the west of the station, running from 42nd to 47th Streets, between Madison and Vanderbilt Avenues.
Grand Central’s new next-door neighbor is likely to be Midtown’s tallest tower, One Vanderbilt, a glassy spire designed by Kohn Pederson Fox, that will replace the sturdy 1912 limestone building, above, designed by Grand Central’s architects, Warren & Wetmore, to complement the station’s Beaux Arts design.
Already underway — the building’s major retail tenant, the sporting goods store Modell’s, leaves this month — construction won’t start until an NYC rezoning proposal to increase the density of buildings in the corridor (and height, although there’s no limit on height now and never has been) finishes its journey through through the city’s ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure) process and is approved, something most observers expect to happen. The De Blasio administration is in favor, and Community Boards and preservation organizations like the Landmarks Conservancy, though dismayed by the prospect, have nothing more than an advisory role. It is almost certain that One Vanderbilt will replace the older building as well as two other venerable early 20th century buildings on the same square block.
From there, if the Vanderbilt Corridor Rezoning Proposal is in fact approved, which will likely happen around mid-year, it’s not a long hop to the redevelopment of sites that include the limestone Yale Club, above, and the Roosevelt Hotel, below, the last of the eight grande dame hotels that once surrounded Grand Central, if their owners decide that demolition and rebuilding are to their advantage, which they well might.
I learned all this and more when I reported a news story last month for Architectural Record, headlined “City Chips Away at Beaux Arts Heart of Manhattan.” It’s all there if you want to delve deeper. The photo, below, shows the base of One Vanderbilt, the building that will replace the 12-story structure at the top of this post (51 East 42nd Street, or the Vanderbilt Avenue building).
The Vanderbilt Corridor is one of those stretches of New York City we tend to take for granted. These solid structures, none of them landmarked, are the fabric of the city as we’ve known it, not the trim. They’re remnants of pre-World War II New York, so much of which has already disappeared in favor of banal or downright ugly glass towers. If they come down and are replaced by 21st century ‘supertalls,’ we’ll become more like Shanghai or Dubai. Is that what we want?
It’s certainly not what preservationists (and I’ll include myself in their number) want. Some may call it progress. I call it sad.
LAST THURSDAY NIGHT’S MUNICIPAL ARTS SOCIETY WALKING TOUR of East Village neon was not what I expected, on several counts. How cold was it? Couldn’t-feel-your-toes cold. Still, I thought there’d be at least a bit of a crowd for such an intriguing event. But just three of us showed up — myself, my sister, and a woman from Virginia. Plus our leader, Tom Rinaldi, the 34-year-old author of New York Neon (Norton), a near-comprehensive book of pre-1970 neon in NYC. I’m glad a member of that generation is interested in documenting what remains of these 20th century artifacts, because they’re going fast. Since Tom’s book came out last year, there are even fewer of those mellow retro neon signs that once characterized the New York night.
Just last week, DiRobertis Pasticceria, on First Avenue near 11th Street, closed down after 110 years in business. Now the block is dark, where once their pink signage cheered the scene. To my shock, the Variety Photoplay Theatre on Second Avenue near 13th, with its Deco-era neon marquee, was no longer there. I’m sure I knew in the back of my mind that it had disappeared some years ago, but I had evidently blocked the knowledge and was looking forward to seeing it. As we walked, I grew increasingly depressed at the realization that very little great neon endures. It is, as Tom called it, ‘an endangered species.’
In our circuit of the neighborhood, from our meeting place in front of Block Drugs, below (obviously), on the corner of Second Avenue and 6th Street, to our final stop at Katz’s Deli on Houston, here’s what we saw.
Above: The business goes back to 1884; the signage, Tom told us, about 1945.
We ducked into a sports bar/pub on Second Avenue, mainly to warm up, and discovered a vintage Bar & Grill sign inside, above, with a great ampersand. Tom told us it had been moved here from elsewhere.
Tom helped my sister and me figure out the best ways to photograph neon. Above, the one remaining Italian pastry shop in the East Village, the venerable Veniero’s. But we were on a mission and did not stop in for cappuccino and cannoli.
Heading down First Avenue, a window sign in a coffee shop, above, the rounded A’s indicating its age.
Popped in to the Theatre 80 St. Marks — their dignified signage, above — and discovered a warm and inviting bar in the lobby. Hot toddies made with absinthe. Note to self.
An appliance store sign on First Avenue, above, had a couple of letters out, but the GE logo looked swell. Those rounded A’s take me right back to childhood.
Then on down to Houston Street, and two classics from the era when the Lower East Side was a bastion of Jewish food: Russ & Daughters Appetizing, above, and Katz’s Deli, below, a neon extravaganza inside and out. Both businesses are still going strong in the 21st century. As long as people keep eating smoked fish and pastrami sandwiches, we can assume their neon signage, lovingly maintained, will endure.
Photos 4, 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 18, 21: Stacie Sinder
IN A MOVE THAT COMES AS A GREAT RELIEF to those who care about New York City’s historic architecture, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has reversed its recent decision to drop nearly 100 properties from its calendar, where many had languished for five years or more. It’s an administrative maneuver that doesn’t necessarily save anything, but at least insures that these properties — all of which were in the initial stages of being designated as landmarks, with research, public hearings, and a vote to follow — will remain under the oversight of the LPC and can’t be willy-nilly altered or, God forbid, demolished.
Top: c.1880 Second Empire cottage, Snug Harbor, Staten Island
Mid-19th c. Ploughman’s Bush Building, North Bronx
Local preservation groups, including including Landmark West and the Historic Districts Council, went ballistic when the decision to remove the properties from LPC oversight was announced just after Thanksgiving. The outcry succeeded in getting the LPC to keep these 100 or so properties on the calendar.
St. Barbara’s Church, 1910, Spanish Baroque, Bushwick, Brooklyn
For me, the eye-opener was an email from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, showing a number of fine and important buildings throughout the five boroughs that I had no idea were quite unprotected. The images in this post come from that email.
Curtis House, c. 1850 Romantic Revival cottage, Staten Island
Better-known and much-beloved sites that remain in this netherworld — for the reversal of the ‘de-calendaring’ was merely a postponement — include Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery and the neon Pepsi sign in Long Island City.
Left to right, above: 2 Oliver Street, 1821 Federal style townhouse, Chinatown; 138 Second Avenue,1832 Federal style rowhouse, East Village; 57 Sullivan Street, 1816 Federal style townhouse, SoHo
THE TITLE OF MITCH BRODER’S new book is just what I’ve been doing lately: Discovering Vintage New York (Globe Pequot, $17) — or what’s left of it, anyway. While friends plan winter trips to Paris, Costa Rica, Burma, and other far-flung places, my own wanderlust is limited these days to the New York City of an earlier era. With Broder’s book as my guide, I’m discovering or re-discovering venerable Manhattan bars, restaurants, bookstores, hat shops, bakeries, etc. — some well-known, some not-so, some dives, some fancy — that have miraculously survived the relentless march of commerce.
I’m much happier at the Old Town Bar on East 18th Street, a dimly lit 1890s tavern with a 55-foot-long marble bar and a dumbwaiter bringing sandwiches up from the basement, than in some trendy new spot. Everything is original: tin ceiling, tile floor, stained glass windows, converted gas chandeliers. “We don’t want to be a hip place,” says an owner, and hurray for that. Broder, a seasoned newspaperman, wants us to have the whole back story; he gives us three pages of reportage on each of 50 places, plus sidebars with 25 more.
The book is a handy compendium of places I once frequented but had forgotten, always meant to get to but never did, and a few I’d never heard of at all. Wait too long, and some of these spots might not be there when you finally get around to it, Broder points out in the book’s introduction. “When places like these close, people who always meant to visit them start grieving. I wrote this book to save you some grief.”
Here’s a partial list of my winter itinerary, drawn from Discovering Vintage New York:
Barbetta, an old-school Italian restaurant on W. 46th Street, opened in 1906 in a brownstone parlor floor
El Quijote, a kitschy Spanish-themed restaurant on W. 23rd St., est. 1920
Right: Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop
B&H Dairy, a Jewish lunch counter on Second Avenue dating from the 1940s. I remember the mushroom barley soup from my NYU days, but never dared to dream it was still in business.
Milano’s Bar on E. Houston, est. 1923 (new to me, though I’ve seen it in passing).
Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street in Chinatown, on the street since 1920, though in a different storefront, and possibly the first to serve dim sum in New York.
Yonah Schimmel’s antique knish bakery I know, and Cafe Reggio on MacDougal, the last of the original Village cafes where you can still get cannolli and baba rum and cappuccino in a nicotine-stained 1920s interior, both included in the book. Mysteriously, the White Horse Tavern, Minetta Tavern, Walker’s and Raoul’s, all favorite downtown haunts of mine, are not. But I find it heartening that there are enough old places left that Broder couldn’t cover them all.
Let the new places continue to open (and close). I’m feeling some urgency about checking out the holdouts. If not now, when?
Below: Wo Hop