|Hidden behind signage is what was once Manhattan's first automat. via loopnet.com|
As the turn of the last century approached, Longacre Square--long the center of New York City's carriage making industry--was quickly being transformed into its theater district. But as late as 1906 the vehicular tradition lived on in the four-story building at No. 1557 Broadway which housed the McGiehan Manufacturing Co., makers of speedometers and odometers, and James F. Gombert which made carriage lamps. Two years earlier the district had officially been renamed Times Square.
In the meantime, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart were changing the face of luncheonettes. The men opened their first restaurant in Philadelphia on December 22 1888. When “waiterless restaurants” began appeared overseas around the turn of the century, Frank Hardart traveled to Europe to see them in action. Customers chose food items from glass-doored compartments, inserted a coin and removed the food. The process required fewer personnel and, therefore, reduced prices. Diners enjoyed quick service and inexpensive meals.
On February 25, 1911 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported "The work of demolishing the old buildings at Nos. 1557, 1559, 1561 and 1563 Broadway, between 46th and 47th sts., adjoining the Globe Theatre, was begun yesterday...and a 5-sty and basement fireproof restaurant and hotel will at once be erected on the site."
The proposed building would house a bachelor's hotel above a posh restaurant, The Cafe Napoleon. The article noted that "the decorations, silverware, china and glassware will be of the Napoleonic period." But the grand plans for the 70-foot wide plot somehow derailed.
By September the Philadelphia architectural firm of Stuckert & Sloane had filed plans instead for a three-story restaurant. Property owner C. William Funk had leased the site to Horn & Hardart for its first New York City automat. The projected cost was $80,000--or about $2.2 million today.
Completed in 1912, the neo-Classical style building was faced in gleaming terra cotta, its facade dominated by double-height openings. Two arched entrances (one to a separate store space which provided additional income) flanked the main entrance within a 30-foot wide expanse of stained glass. Designed by art glass artisan Nicola D'Ascenzo, it included a panel that read "Automat" in Art Nouveau style letters. The openings of the third floor were also of stained glass. Atop the cornice were four finial-like electric lamps.
Stuckert & Sloane carried the Art Nouveau motif of the glass signage into the dining room. The marble bases of the columns morphed into colorful tiled tree trunks which spread flowers, fruits and vines along the beams and radiated out along the ceiling. Crouching within the joints of the ceiling beams above each column were sculpted wood sprites or gnomes. The decorative elements, including stained glass, reportedly cost the equivalent of more than a quarter of a million in today's dollars.
|A post card reveals the mosaic floors, elaborate ceiling decorations, and the mahogany cabinetry and beveled glass mirrors that enframed the dispensing machines. |
The foreign concept of the automat prompted Architecture & Building to school its readers. "For ordinary viands the proper coin is deposited in the slot and a turn of the knob throws open a door and within the compartment which is exposed the food is found."
But opening night had no "ordinary viands." It was planned as a charity event by theater producer and director John Murray Anderson and actress Jenny Wren. Instead of Horn & Hardart's home-made foods, the invited guests dropped their nickels into the slots to withdraw plates of caviar or smoked salmon supplied by society caterer Sherry's. Dressed in evening clothes, the guests were entertained by music provided by Meyer Davis's orchestra.
The next day the automat opened for regular business, offering its more pedestrian fare. Horn & Hardart would become well-known for dishes like Salisbury steak and gravy, macaroni and cheese, and its famed Boston pork and beans baked in their own earthenware crocks. The firm's pastries were made on site--lemon meringue, cherry and apple pies, angel food or coconut layer cakes, and such.
|The Evening World, July 1, 1912 (copyright expired)|
In February 1914 architect John E. Kleist was commissioned to design a "steel sky sign," as described by the Record & Guide. The large illuminated neon sign, which cost the equivalent of nearly $27,000 today, would be a familiar sight on Times Square for decades.
In 1916 the Horn & Hardart firm purchased the property it had been leasing for four years. It would prove to be a very propitious decision.
Despite changing attitudes between management and workers, Horn & Hardart remained adamantly anti-union into the 1930's. Frank Hardard, Jr. vocally expressed his disdain of organized labor, calling strikers "unscrupulous agitators" and characterizing unions as communistic.
Picket lines often deteriorated to battle lines during the Great Depression with tensions heightened. On December 16, 1937 The New York Sun entitled an article "13 Pickets Jailed for Rioting" and reported on the melee in front of the Times Square Horn & Hardart. "For three-quarters of an hour more than 100 pickets marched up and down in front of the restaurant, shouting and singing and trying to fight off a detail of thirty-six policemen sent to disperse them. The demonstration ended in a free-for-all fight when the police began loading the pickets into patrol wagons."
In February 1945, during World War II, the federal government instituted a nationwide curfew on nightclubs. John "Ole" Olsen and Harold "Chic" Johnson were popular comedians whose act "Olsen and Johnson" had been drawing crowds since the days of vaudeville. When the curfew was enacted they were playing nearby on Broadway.
On February 28 The New York Sun reported "Deprived of the usual amusement places, Olsen and Johnson and more than 100 men and women in the cast of 'Laffing Room Only!' walked from the Winter Garden to the Automat at 1557 Broadway after their show last night...A large crowd was attracted both inside and outside of the big Automat by the presence of the performers, many of whom were in evening dress. At the Automat it was reported today that a fine time was had by all, with Olsen and Johnson and members of their cast ad libbing over their coffee."
|At the time of Olsen & Johnson's foray to the automat, the ground floor stained glass had been replaced with plate glass. Life magazine, 1946.|
The modernization of Stuckert and Sloane's classic facade began before mid-century when part of the stained glass was removed. What remained was replaced with plate glass by architect John J. McNamara in 1957.
Changing times and the arrival of fast food chains in the 1960's prompted Horn & Hardart to react. In 1968 the Times Square automat was granted a liquor license--a concept that would have shocked its patrons in 1912.
In 1973 the firm's president, Federick H. Guterman, addressed the problem of fast food chains with The New York Times journalist Glenn Collins. "Mr. Guterman says the value of Horn & Hardart's real estate holdings is helping to buy time for a radical attempt to change the Horn & Hardart image, long associated in many people's minds with cavernous cafeterias filled by elderly people nursing cups of coffee."
Comparing the vast automat spaces to "big barns," Guterman suggested "We might have burger and brew, pizza and brew or a spaghetti operation. We don't know yet."
Within four years the firm did know. The Times Square location was converted to a Burger King franchise, still operated by Horn & Hardart. On March 20, 1978 Matthew L. Wald, writing in The New York Times commented that "'Whopper' hamburgers have replaced such Horn & Hardart staples as baked beans."
Five years later journalist Robert F. Byrnes reminisced about No. 1557 Broadway in a New York Times article entitled "Thanksgiving Dinner at the Automat." He remembered it as "A classy place. All that Carrara marble and miles of patterned white tile, and the shiny chrome and the spotless plate-glass Automat-machine windows. Pillars. Elegant lamps on the ceiling. You'd have to look hard to find a scrap of paper on the floor."
But it was no longer hard to find a scrap of paper on the floor of No. 1557 Broadway.
Today any remnants of the once beautiful terra cotta facade are disfigured, covered by billboards. Inside, however, traces of Stucker & Sloane's 1912 detailing survive if you look closely enough.