Thursday, April 15, 2010

An Art Deco Gem Comes Out of Hiding

By the 1990s the block of 8th Avenue north of 34th Street had sunk about as low as it would.  Bargain and electronic stores took the place of earlier more respectable businesses.  The building at 488 8th Avenue housed an adult entertainment center and was sheathed in a pseudo-modern metal facade.
In the late summer of 2000 that metal facade began giving way and had to be removed.  What emerged was the long-forgotten Bickford's Restaurant building.  Faced in white terra-cotta it rises to an Aztec-inspired Art Deco cartouche.  There in large script "Bickford's" can still be read, although the applied lettering was lost long ago.

Immediately below, rows of sharp zig-zagging Art Deco waves support the entire design.  Bickford's architect was F. Russell Stuckert, son of the architect who designed some of the 1890s Horn & Hardart buildings.

Bickford's Restaurants were a mainstay of early to mid-20th Century New York.  It all started in 1902 when Samuel L. Bickford opened his first restaurant.  Within two decades later he owned a chain offering quick food at affordable prices.  In those pre-Depression days, the company described itself  saying "The lunchrooms operated are of the self-service type and serve a limited bill of fare, which makes possible the maximum use of equipment and a rapid turnover.  Emphasis is placed on serving meals of high quality at moderate cost."

photograph S. L. Bickford Family
The little building at 488 8th Avenue made the newspapers in 1932 when Bickford's replaced a glass windows using non-union glaziers.  In retaliation union members drove past while a passenger shot out the plate glass with a slingshot. 

The appeal of Bickford's, as well as their rival Horn & Hardart, was good food served quickly in a pleasant environment at an affordable cost.  The working class of the nearby 34th Street office buildings flocked in at lunchtime for lamb stew or chopped steak, followed by apple pie or rice pudding.  The 24 lunchrooms in the 1920s doubled to 48 by 1960.

The restaurants became so imbedded in New York culture that Allen Ginsburg in his 1956 poem "Howl" wrote "I saw the best minds of my generation...Who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s..."

Good times naturally come to and end.  For Bickford's the end started in the 1960s when crime in New York escalated.  Muggers, the iconic black eye of Manhattan in those years, roamed the streets after nightfall.  Patrons stayed home at night.  Business disappeared.  And so did the Bickford's Restaurants.  By the 1980s there were no more lunchrooms.

Bickford's was forgotten by an entire generation until the summer of 2000 when a little Art Deco gem came out of hiding.  Today the facade is largely covered by a huge Vornado ad and the original street level has been obliterated.  But the sleek design of the upper stories remains thankfully intact.


  1. The Dakota building or Dakota Apartments is the site of Polanski's film Rosemary's Baby, I just found out

  2. Well, ok! That's one of your questions I don't need to answer !