Monday, December 17, 2018

The Lost 1938 Horn & Hardart - 104 West 57th Street


The former Horn & Hardart had become the New York Delicatessen when Edmund Vincent Gillon took this shot.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened their first restaurant in Philadelphia on December 22, 1888.  When "waiterless restaurants" began appearing overseas around the turn of the century, Frank Hardart traveled to Europe to see them in action.  Customers chose food items through glass-doored compartments, inserted a coin and removed the food.  The process required fewer personnel and, therefore, afforded reduced prices.  Diners enjoyed quick service and inexpensive meals.

Horn & Hardart brought the concept to the United States.  The result was a sensation and in 1912 they branched into New York City.  Shop girls, office workers and laborers found that they could stretch their meager pay within clean, attractive surroundings where five cents would buy tasty, freshly-made food.

The coin machines accepted only nickels and female "nickel throwers" were on hand to make change.   And because the coins dirtied the cashiers' hands, they wore black uniforms.

Despite the low food prices, Horn & Hardart did not scrimp on the interiors.  Marble, white tile and gleaming chrome were kept spotless and the cafeterias were often termed "classy."  Joseph Horn's approach to the restaurant business was simple.  "There is no trick to selling a poor item cheaply.  The trick is to sell a good item cheaply."

The Great Depression did not negatively impact the firm's bottom line, but in fact boosted it.  New Yorkers with fewer dollars to spend found that automats saved them money.  On October 5, 1937 The New York Times reported that the Horn & Hardart Company had assembled a site "for an additional unit in the chain of Automat restaurants" at Nos. 102 through 106 West 57th Street.  At the time of the article the firm already operated 44 restaurants in the city and employed 3,000.

The Horn & Hardart Company commissioned the 54-year-old architect Ralph Bowden Bencker to design the new restaurant.  Based in Philadelphia, he had early on embraced the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles synonymous with the automats' architectural identities.

The completed structure cost $75,000--just over $1.25 million today.  Bencker had produced a sleek Art Moderne structure faced in pink granite.  Its squat, somewhat bulbous form was half motion picture theater, half army tank.  Three rounded pavilions fronted the structure, flanked by geometric piers of stacked blocks.  Above was a circular turret which sprouted a flagpole.

Opening day was August 16, 1938 and a newspaper made special note that the two-story building "is air-conditioned."  The location was perfect.  The automat sat one block west of glitzy Fifth Avenue, across the street from Steinway Hall, just down the block from Carnegie Hall, and a quick walk from the Broadway theater district.   It became the haunt not only of shop girls and businessmen, but of well-to-do theater goers and celebrities.

An advertising postcard depicted the sleek interior with its patterned terrazzo floor and tidy tables.
Decades later actress Claire Bloom recalled her first visit to the restaurant during the 1940's.  As recorded by Sean Dennis Cashman in his American Ascendant, she wrote in 1996:

The walls of the vast eating area were lined with metal containers bearing glass windows, in which rested every imaginable food available; delicious and delectable pies, both sweet and savory, Salisbury steak with gravy, macaroni and cheese, Boston "pork and beans" baked in their own earthenware crock, frothy lemon meringue pies, and glistening iced angel food or coconut layer cakes.  Single portions could be freed from their glass prisons by inserting nickels into the slots; the windows would fly open, leaving the hungry customer--in this instance me--to simply remove her chosen plate of food, ready to plunge in.

Claire Bloom was not the only celebrity who rubbed shoulders with the more pedestrian New Yorkers and tourists throughout the decades.  It was not the nickel slices of pie that drew musicians, singers and stage performers, but the ambiance.

That ambiance was enhanced in the 1973 when Horn & Hardart offered live entertainment in the space.  On May 4 The Times reported "Horn & Hardart, whose main involvement in show business had once consisted of putting food on revolving platforms behind little glass windows, has had its eye on the big time for quite a while now.  It has presented concerts, hoedowns, soloists, piano players and other musical events designed to soothe the customer in search of a table."

Now, said the article, every Friday and Saturday night would feature jazz and folk concerts.  Jazz musician David Amram kicked off the concert series and returned often.  The composer of the "Horn & Hardart Succotash Blues," he remembered those weekend concerts in his 2008 autobiography Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat:

Musicians strolling by from every genre came into the automat to join us, including symphonic musicians from visiting orchestras who were performing at Carnegie Hall, a block away...Crowds often gathered outside the automat to watch us playing and eventually came into the cafeteria out of curiosity to join the Horn and Hardart regular customers.

On February 23, 1974 the automat gave the concert of the rock band Yolanda an extra dose of fun.  An advertisement in New York Magazine urged "Bring you own pillow! and whatever February 23rd to the Maximus Pajama Party."  The restaurant promised "pillow fights and lots of etc."

But already the era of the automat was passing away.  In 1977 Horn & Hardart gave up its distinctive 57th Street building, which was converted to The New York Delicatessen.  The iconic glass-doored compartments were ripped out as part of the renovations.

The new restaurant was the scene of a tragedy on October 5, 1986.  Elizabeth Danile was a waitress here and Toff F. Hunter was a chef.  The couple lived together on Morningside Drive.  Elizabeth, who was 33-years old, and her 35-year-old boyfriend got into an argument at work sometime after midnight.  Hunter picked up a chef's knife and plunged it into Elizabeth's chest.

When the police arrived Hunter tried to kill himself with the same knife, but they succeeded in preventing him from inflicting major injury on himself.  Elizabeth died an hour later at Roosevelt Hospital.

photo by Mary Ann Sullivan
The New York Delicatessen, like its predecessor, was a familiar eating spot for natives and tourists alike.  It offered staple, New York City deli food.  Marian Burros gave a frank opinion of its soups in an article entitled "De Gustibus; In Search of Good Chicken Soup" in The Times on February 7, 1987.

New York Magazine, June 30, 1986 

The verdict was somewhat split.  As for the chicken soup, "Not much flavor, but made with noodles and carrots.  Motzoh ball: superb and soft, with delicious toasted matzoh flavor."

But after a decade that restaurant, too, left.  By 1996 it was home to the Motown Cafe.  And before long it became Shelly's New York restaurant.  The writing was on the wall for the two-story building in a landscape of soaring buildings and high rents.  Early in 2006 the owners bought back Shelly's lease, ordering them out by April.

Preservation groups, including the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Municipal Art Society and the Art Deco Society of New York, petitioned the Landmarks Preservation Commission to hold a public hearing on the endangered structure.  It had already rejected the idea of designating it in 2002 citing alterations to the facade.

A spokesperson for the New York Landmark's Conservancy deemed the building "a rare example of streamlined modernism," saying it "is notable not only for its curved, Art Modern facade, but also as a symbol of a quintessential New York dining experience."

The Landmarks Preservation Commission disagreed and refused to hold a hearing.   In June 2006 the charismatic building was sold for $63 million.  It was replaced by a glass-fronted Hilton Hotel.

photo via priceline.com

5 comments:

  1. The 1940 NYC tax photo shows the automat exterior. Try http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/NYCMA~5~5~239487~511554?sort=borough%2Cblock%2Clot%2Czip_code

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  2. Isn't it great when the Landmarks Commission simply decides Art Moderne isn't for them? Let it go. I hated seeing this demolished. My mother and I had breakfast at the NY Delicatessen, strangely around the time of that murder. Aside from being a nice room, the breakfast was noteworthy for being rather expensive! Thanks.

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  3. Our neighborhood H&H was maybe 977 8th Ave, between 57th & 58th right off Columbus Circle.
    Any chance of a blog on that one?
    I lived at 315 E 57th, our neighbors ran the bowling alley above the H&H.
    We moved in 1974, on a visit back in 1977 the H&H was a Burger King and the bowling alley upstairs had closed.
    When I next strode that stretch in 1997, the entire corner of the block was now home to a huge green residential tower.
    My candy store, H&H building, Woolworths,my Karate school above Woolworths, Little Italy Pizzeria, our subway entrance at the corner of 57th, ...all gone.

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    1. Fascinating, Steve. I moved to the city in the middle of 1985 when that block was still at least Woolworth-endowed. I remember it as a good architectural block with one great Mansard roof. Sadly, I had lost all my cameras to a burglary early on and didn't record much during my early years here, so this recollection hits on one of the blocks of Manhattan I frequently strain to rebuild in my mind. The H&H, sadly, was long missing. I only got to enjoy the modern one at 3rd and 42nd for a time.

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  4. I also fondly recall this wonderful building--but I recall that it had one other incarnation:
    I think it was in-between the time that it was an H&H and the time that it became the Deli: a large bookstore was in there!

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